Magazine | December 7, 2015, Issue

Underground at Brown

The Van Wickle Gates at Brown University (Yiming Chen/Contributor/Getty Images)
A secret forum in which people can talk

Providence, R.I. — Last year, a student at Brown University established a secret forum with one purpose: to allow students to talk freely about possibly controversial issues. Think of that. At Brown, there is an underground group whose purpose is to allow kids to say what they ought to be free to say above ground.

The group came about in this way: Brown was to host a debate on the issue of campus rape. In one corner was Jessica Valenti, a radical feminist, and in the other was Wendy McElroy, a radical libertarian. It was suspected that McElroy would deny there was a “culture of rape.” And this was intolerable to some students, who protested mightily — in advance, mind you.

The debate came off, to Brown’s credit. The previous year, Ray Kelly was forced off the stage. New York’s police commissioner at the time, Kelly was trying to give a lecture entitled “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.” The kids at Brown, some of them, were not interested in what he had to say — and denied everyone else the right to hear him say it.

But the debate about campus rape came off. Brown had taken mollifying steps, however. The university’s president announced that she opposed Wendy McElroy’s view — and scheduled a lecture for the same time as the debate. The lecture, by a Brown psychiatry professor, was called “The Research on Rape Culture.” Evidently, it was not enough that the debate would be a debate: a clash of views. There had to be a separate event, without a clash, or a disagreement.

Also, students set up a safe space for those who might attend the debate and be shaken by something they heard. A “safe space”? Yes. This space, in the words of Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New York Times, was a room “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”

One student was fed up — fed up with an atmosphere of illiberalism, fear, and nuttiness. That was Chris Robotham, a sophomore from Scituate, Mass., majoring in computer science and math. He created a Facebook group called “Reason@Brown.” You can set up three types of Facebook group: Public, Closed, or Secret. This one is secret. It provides a safe space (to coin a phrase) for the free exchange of ideas, online. A member can simply express his views without being condemned as a heretic or villain. Without being shouted off the stage. There is actual argument.

Now a junior, Chris tells me that he grew up arguing with his father. (Not a few children argue with their father.) “He and I spent a lot of time in debates about all sorts of issues. I was used to it, and I was disappointed to come to Brown and find that these debates were almost impossible. That could not be more antithetical to the mission of this university, or any university. What happens is, a view that questions the dominant view has to be bulldozed over.”

Was it really necessary for Reason@Brown to be secret? “I am willing to put my neck on the line,” says Chris, “and if people want to say I am some kind of ist, or a violent oppressor on account of my white masculinity, etc., that’s fine, that’s their prerogative, but I think there are a lot of people, including my freshman-year self, who would not be comfortable putting their neck on the line but who, to be perfectly frank, deserve to have the intellectual discussions promised to them in Brown’s advertising and for which they may be paying some six-figure amount.”

The group started when Chris asked five or so friends whether they would be interested in joining. Those students, in turn, asked others. Members have the right to invite others in. So, the group grows on this basis of referrals. It now has just above 100 members.

They are a diverse bunch, too, says Chris, meaning that they hold all sorts of views. What the members have in common is that they are willing to air and debate those views. Chris says that there are members supporting presidential candidates from Sanders to Trump. A majority of the members will vote Democratic in 2016, he guesses. “But they’re more conservative than the general Brown population, which isn’t saying much.” He goes on to note that if censorship and intimidation were coming from the right, membership of this secret forum would be more liberal.

One member is Marie Willersrud, a junior from Oslo, Norway, majoring in business economics. She grew up in the social-democratic culture of her homeland — a culture that many find stiflingly conformist. (Many Norwegians, I mean.) She looked forward to going to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. She looked forward to happy, unbridled discussion. And she went, of course, to Brown.

“Marie!” I say. “Didn’t you know that you were going to one of the least free and open pockets in the whole, vast United States! What were the other options? Oberlin? Reed? Bennington?” She laughs appreciatively.

“I have a lot of fun conversations with Americans,” she says, “except when it comes to politics. I find myself in a place where a large percentage of the student body wants to shut down debates that include unpopular opinions, and the university backs them. This is not what I signed up for.”

She was amazed, in her freshman year, that the police commissioner of New York was booed and shouted off the stage, not permitted to speak. And what she often hears from students is “but”: “I’m for free speech, but . . .” There is always some excuse that disallows it.

Incredulous and disgusted at the same time, I ask, “Can you really not talk here, except on Reason@Brown?” Marie says, with dead seriousness, “I know very well in what company I can talk freely about things and in what company I should keep my mouth shut.” Chris chimes in, “I would second that.” Marie continues, “The number of times my freshman year I was told that I was being offensive . . .” “You’re kidding?” I say. Marie is the politest and friendliest of students. “Offensive for saying what?” “Just for being blunt,” Marie says.

There was a time when people prided themselves on being blunt and even offensive — they went out of their way to give offense. They wore it as a badge of honor. I wonder whether the pressure to conform has ever been so great as it is now. (Even in Puritan times?)

Because of some recent reporting I have done — including this visit to Brown — I’ve learned some of today’s campus lingo. To say something that others might disagree with is to commit “violence.” You are “invalidating,” “marginalizing,” or “erasing” them. And you of course are making them “unsafe.” Also, students imagine themselves “oppressed,” when they are anything but. Recently, AAPI at Brown — this is a “collective” of Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander students — issued a statement claiming that the school newspaper “privileges writers who continue in the legacy of white supremacy, further marginalizing students already systemically oppressed by the University.”

Oppressed! Systemically! I point out to Chris and Marie that Brown students, whoever they are, are among the luckiest people on the face of the earth. “In human history,” says Chris, correctly. What ingrates they are, I continue: to be at this renowned institution, on this beautiful campus, at the tippy-top of American society. Millions of people around the world would trade places with them in a heartbeat! “You can’t marginalize their suffering,” Marie chides me, with a twinkle.

So, Reason@Brown is now outed, by virtue of this interview. Only two members’ names will be known: those of Chris and Marie. But the group’s existence will be known. Why now? Because, as Chris explains, the atmosphere of censorship is getting no better, and is possibly getting even worse. At the same time, people on campus are getting bolder about talking back to it — the censorship, that is. They are speaking up for free speech.

Maybe a story about Reason@Brown will embolden them further. It might even disturb the consciences of the censors, a little.

In October, three Brown professors and a senior lecturer — fairly gutsy souls — wrote a letter together. They rapped the university’s administration for “timidity and cowardice in the face of voices for censorship and the suppression of ideas.” At stake, they warned, “are the soul and character of a liberal and open university.”

Chris says that Reason@Brown should not have to exist — at least not in secret. “This is the administration’s fault for failing to endorse a culture of the free exchange of ideas. They are afraid of being in official opposition to various advocacy groups on campus. Their refusal to say no to these groups has created the need for Reason@Brown, which should otherwise be known as Brown University.”

He recognizes that the outing of Reason@Brown might bring him “some grief,” as he puts it. But he is “not especially concerned about that.”

His hope is that, one day, there will be no need for Reason@Brown. He reemphasizes: “This should not need to exist. I should not be giving this interview. I should be in my dorm room right now.” But here we are.

Over the years, I have covered a lot of political dissidents in unfree countries. I don’t say that Chris Robotham and Marie Willersrud are in the same category. Far from it. But it’s impossible not to recognize certain similarities. And I admire these two more than I can say.

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