Saturday, March 28, 2015

What do the NSA and the Ithaca College Student Government Association have in common?

Edward Snowden blew the whistle on NSA spying in part because of his belief that the ability to speak freely and explore ideas is crucial to becoming the person that you want to be - and had allowed him to become the person he wanted to be. He believes that NSA spying (in addition to being illegal, immoral, and having the potential to start accidental wars) chills the process of discovering, trying, adopting, and discarding ideas.

Keeping this in mind might help to explain to those to whom it's not obvious why it's troubling to see students embracing the idea of chilling uncomfortable or what they deem to be offensive speech. Reason reports that the Ithaca College Student Government Association is attempting to create an Internet-based system for reporting and tracking microaggressions on campus.

"The bill, sponsored by Class of 2018 senator Angela Pradhan, calls for the implementation of a campus-wide online system to report microaggressions to “make Ithaca College a safer, more inclusive and diverse community for all students.”...

The system would also contain a way to distinguish between staff, faculty members and both international and American students, as well as a mechanism to include where the microaggression took place, Pradhan said.

She said the demographic information would be used as data regarding the issue of microaggressions. Currently, Pradhan said there is no data system tracking microaggressions at the college.

The bill does not currently state that the names of people accused of committing microaggressions will be reported. While Pradhan said she believes the names of alleged offenders should be reported, she said there could be possible legal barriers."" - The Ithacan
This type of monitoring encourages the same self-policing and timidity toward controversial ideas - conformity and fear - and creates the same dangerous climate of uncertainty that Snowden's defenders claim that NSA spying has encouraged. As many have pointed out, it encourages this self-censorship in the environment where voicing, testing, and challenging ideas - even and especially our most cherished beliefs - is most important: in an academic setting. It turns out that it's not a stretch to say that Snowden would agree this is problematic.
"[T]he question becomes, where is the best place to debate and either find credit or discredit in extreme ideas? And if that's not the academic community, than where? If we can't have an open and honest debate about the value of ideas in a university in Glasgow, or Boston, or anywhere else in the world, then where are they going to go? Extremists are not going to disappear. Radicals are not going to disappear. They're going to go underground. They're going to be hardened. And they're not going to be exposed to contrary ideas made by educated people who can make real, convincing, and persuasive arguments to deradicalise these people. By creating a self-policing, self-reporting, sort of self-monitoring culture through law, through statute, and imposing that on the academic world, I think not only are we losing a significant measure of freedom in academic traditions and in our civil society, but we're actually making ourselves less competitive with every other country around the world that does not do that. Because that's where researchers are going to go and that's where academics are going to go. And ultimately, that's where breakthroughs are going to occur. Because we have to be able to ask questions in order to answer them. And by putting these sort of lines around what ideas are proper or improper, we lose things." - Edward Snowden
There's lots more to say here, but I'll leave it at this: With student leaders like the ones at Ithaca College today, perhaps Snowden should be happy that he didn't blow the whistle a generation later.

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