Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991
John R. Salter, Jr.
I’M COMPLETELY AGAINST any efforts to ban racist or sexist speech, or any other speech, on college or university campuses—or anywhere else. I speak as both activist and academic and as one who has been involved in social justice pursuits and teaching since the 1950s.
American Indians have, traditionally, recognized the right of everyone to be heard—no matter how unpopular or even noxious the verbiage. (And critics of some things said have certainly never felt inhibited about disputing things!) Whatever its limitations, my native state of Arizona has never deteriorated—despite the presence of copper bosses and the farming magnates, among others—into the sort of closed society once exemplified by Mississippi. In part, at least, this has been because of the libertarian traditions of a far-ranging frontier where “things open out instead of in” and where free speech has generally, however grudgingly, been respected or at least tolerated.
I’ve never known any effort anywhere to ban speech that really “worked.” I’ve known few such efforts that, sooner or later, weren’t turned against the advocates of constructive social change. Hell, look at human history. Frankly, some of the most sanctimonious proponents of racist and sexist speech in university settings have been, in my observation, administrators whose real commitment to, say, affirmative action, has been zero—and who frequently have worked against anything of a tangible nature that would increase the numbers (and morale) of women and minorities in meaningful positions. Other, more well-meaning official folk, worry about “negative speech,” expressing their concerns in the context and style of a prattling timidity that brings out the worst in everyone.
Here at the University of North Dakota, in a state and region where Native Americans are the most substantial minority, our Department of American Indian Studies offers several sections of a course called Introduction to Indian Studies–which fulfills a state teacher certification necessity and also meets certain humanities and social science requirements. About 350 students per year pass through these courses (I teach 200 or so personally); the majorities are Anglo, with a good number of American Indians and other minorities represented. In this classroom setting, academic dimensions are heavily laced with confronting all kinds of people’s hang-ups—and we deal with these directly in a non-guilt trip, “say what you please” hang-loose sort of atmosphere.
This works—and often these students go on to take other courses of ours, such as Contemporary Indian Issues or Federal Indian Law and Policy or Plains Indians. Common interests, common concerns and common allies surface.
And in many other sectors, in and out of the university setting, we’ve challenged all kinds of anti-people words and deeds and patterns. We’ve done it openly and candidly—and without tearing people down. Our efforts are interracial and intercultural.
We’ve seen things improve enlightenment-wise with the students, considerably so, and with many townspeople. But we still have a long, long way to go in getting minorities and women hired in solid and influential university positions. Academics—including academic liberals—are certainly often harder to deal with than an essentially nice Anglo kid who has some hang-ups.
The kid is usually honest enough to face-up and change, given a firm push or two or three—done in a friendly fashion. Too many academics combine slipperiness and functional intractability in the most creative and self-serving ways.
We just have to keep fighting, all of us together, step by step. But let’s not waste time on dangerous gimmicks like gag laws and regulations. The real prize lies Hover the mountain yonder’ and we can catch it—if we don’t allow ourselves to be de-railed and diverted into the canyons.