As an international student, my time is divided between two very contrasting settings. One is Claremont—home of the Claremont Colleges—an affluent college town tucked within the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and the other is Cornwall, nestled in the rural southwest corner of the United Kingdom. I’ve noticed many differences in the two cultures—almost a cultural shock, especially regarding the different values of home and college. I must emphasize that this piece isn’t meant to prove that one is better than the other; rather, I hope to point out where and why they differ.
Freedom of Expression
Currently a very hot topic in the United Kingdom, freedom of expression is at least de jure a constitutional right in the United States that cannot be infringed on by the government. This right also applies to institutions of learning in California, meaning that students cannot be punished by their institutions for what they choose to say, with few exceptions.
Despite these rights and tradition of free expression in America, many of my peers in Claremont try, to put simply, suppress students’ right to free expression.
I recall during my orientation, former Pomona College president David Oxtoby gave a long speech about how students should police their own speech thoroughly, and avoid giving their own opinions on controversial issues but rather “listen” to avoid offending someone. Former Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum then insisted that this request was not for the purpose of censorship, but rather for showing empathy. After hearing this statement I realized that the result of avoiding dialogue is still the censorship of different opinions, even if it is not the intention. I found this acceptance of censorship ironic, as I thought that in a nation that cherishes free ideas and free speech, a college would emphasize such values even more; this free exchange of ideas is what drives the innovation that I associate with America.
Shortly after this speech finished, an upperclassman lectured passionately about wanting to “burn Pomona [College] to the ground” because of the “white supremacy” the flagship member of the Claremont Colleges represented—which ironically could not be further from the truth. I realized that Claremont tolerates some controversial speech, as long as it’s from the correct part of the political spectrum. If you dare to disagree with a mainstream idea, you risk being slandered with insults and groundless accusations of racism by others, rather than being engaged in meaningful debate, which is supposed to be how we learn from each other, especially in a place of higher education.
On the contrary, the United Kingdom has no such right to freedom of expression. The UK does have a freedom of speech act, though with many exceptions, including the Malicious Communications Act of 1988, which excludes speech“indecent or grossly offensive with an intent to cause distress” from the right of expression. What qualifies under these criteria is a matter of interpretation, leaving this Act open to abuse, and indeed, it has been abused. One of the most famous examples is a Scottish YouTuber who almost faced jail time and was fined £800 for uploading a video mocking his girlfriend’s pug doing a Nazi salute as a prank, and there are many more cases of this abuse of the law.
However, there is in practice a higher level of tolerance for expressing different ideas than in Claremont. What is refreshing about most of the UK is that it is fairly acceptable to respectfully disagree with one another, and still be friends at the end of the day. We have our disagreements and learn from them, but do not let those disagreements define our relationships with others.
Division and Identity
Perhaps an even more controversial a topic than speech, superficial identity seems to be pivotal to your place in Claremont. At Turf Dinner, an event where all the student clubs advertise themselves, many of the stands I see are themed around ethnicity or gender identity. A friend of mine dropped a physics class because a large part of the course involved a project about getting more womxn and other “underrepresented” groups into physics, rather than about actually learning the mechanics of the universe.
Yet the most well-known occurrences of identity politics surround the idea of privilege. Using this idea, people are judged primarily on their race, gender, or sexual orientation—all superficial and immutable characteristics—to determine their privilege. Other factors such as household income and disability are also considered, but are at best secondary criteria. People deemed more privileged are expected to work to change this perceived disparity, including by constantly apologising to those deemed as less privileged, giving less-privileged people priority in some situations, and paying people for emotional labor. The result of this is division based on race and gender—something you’d expect to see in an old, backwards society, not a modern, enlightened college campus.
Fortunately, British society does not have such a rigid approach to identity. Before I came to Claremont, the only conversations I had about race or gender was to not be racist or sexist—to not see people as superior or inferior to others, but to judge them by the content of their character. There isn’t much else to tell on this subject, coming from a somewhat race-blind society. It’s amazing how in some of the most elite American colleges, racial identity and other superficial identifications are so important.
Expectations vs. Reality
Before I arrived at Claremont, I was somewhat aware of the campus culture. I saw on the web countless articles and videos pertaining to the “social justice” culture on college campuses. When I heard what people were saying, I initially assumed they were being sarcastic; I presumed the extreme aspects of such identity politics and institutional left-wing bias were exaggerated. Yet, when I arrived I quickly realized this wasn’t the case; what I heard online were not exaggerations.
It might seem as if I’m heavily criticizing Claremont, and to an extent I am, but that’s not to say that British universities are any better. Recall that the UK has no right to freedom of expression; that extends to universities as well. The issue of free speech is an international issue, and Claremont is in no way unique in its contempt of it. Americans should be very thankful for the entrenched values of free people, free ideas, and free speech that still prevails in much of this country.
Hopes for the Future
In the UK, I hope that people will realize the importance of free speech, and that rules on what can be said are commonly subject to abuse.
Overall, Claremont is a wonderful place, full of very smart people and a myriad of resources for students. Personally, I’ve had a very enriching cultural experience of America so far during my time in Claremont, and even to this day I love the fact that I divide my time between two vastly different places. In addition, I’ve managed to meet some individuals who aren’t afraid to swim against the flow of the monoculture. I hear some people talk about the “silent majority”—people who secretly don’t buy all the tenets of radical identify politics and the such. All I have to say about this “silent majority” is that they’re pretty silent. I hope that these students will decide to escape the matrix, and realize that it’s better to stand up for what’s right than to walk with the flock of sheep.
The opinions in this article reflect the author’s only, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent’s editorial board.
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