Free Speech Hysteria: What Really Happened At Kenyon College

A story published by the Weekly Standard on February 6th contained some troubling details on the state of freedom of expression on campuses in America. I was alarmed.

The story alleged that Wendy MacLeod, a professor of drama and playwright-in-residence at Kenyon College, had been censored following the backlash from the release of her play “The Good Samaritan” over campus email. The response had been so negative that McLeod canceled the April production of the piece. Apparently what MacLeod had written was racist and insensitive, and the Latinx community at Kenyon had been particularly vocal in their protest of the work. The article characterized the response as a mob looking for a witch.

The Standard article ended their piece with a description of a “Whiteness Group” at Kenyon, which is apparently not a supremacist club but rather a place for the demonization of white privilege. It even has its own set of draconian and exclusionary policies, among which are rules like, “no white person can ask a person of color questions; white people must try to answer their questions for themselves. And no spreading rumors about what people say during the meetings.”

The whole mess amounted to the worst kind of perversions in the name of equality and reparations, a total flouting of the noble liberal ideals of which universities and colleges are sacred guardians. It was another account of the troubling state of campuses nationwide, where lefty hand-wringing and political correctness have run rampant through the halls of knowledge and torn Lady Liberty from her anointed throne.

Oh, and all of it was spurious and out of context.

So badly, firmly and hilariously out of context that I wonder if the Weekly Standard has actually read any of the articles they sourced or just scanned the headlines and wrote the kind of conservative click-bait they knew would increase the value of their ad space.

In the full account of events, MacLeod disseminated the script of “The Good Samaritan” to the student body in the hope of receiving feedback about ways in which she might improve it. What she got instead was the firm voice of the Latinx community on campus – represented by Latinx student groups, professors of Latin American literature and alumni – telling her the story was irredeemable.

It centers around Hector, a fifteen-year-old migrant worker trapped at an egg farm working for free for fear of ICE, who escapes his indentured servitude and finds himself among the smug and privileged white students of Kenyon College. They argue about him, apparently trying to decide what to do. Accounts after that point are shaky, and copies of the script are hard to come by. Everyone agrees the show is intended to be a comedy, MacLeod herself cites Freud saying “humor is about bringing the repressed to light.”

However, the Latinx community disagrees about the play’s function as such. They said that rather than offering insight, the play offers stereotypes and embarrassment.

 At this point in the story, The Weekly Standard went on to decry some of the student emails and responses to the show, some of which are vitriolic. One says the play is “unapologetically racist and mocking,” an “insensitive and harmful narrative,” that MacLeod was “was more invested in writing a provocative story starring white characters .” See? I can pull quotes out of context and make them sound reactionary, too.

But the reality here is that the feedback was long and insightful. If you click on the link above you will see people who have taken the time to write small essays outlining their reactions to the work. It is exactly the kind of tough criticism that MacLeod was soliciting when she sent the first email.

And yes, yes there were people who wrote in and said that freedom of expression should not cover MacLeod’s play. Yes, there were people who wanted it censored by the administration at Kenyon. Yes, the regressive left is alive and out there. You can find them as easily as white supremacists and homophobes. However, and this is crucial, to characterize the response of a community over their representation, when that response is asked for outright, as political correctness is ridiculous. To say it is the death of free speech or liberal education is an outright lie.

Also, the administration defended MacLeod’s right to freedom of speech as did many of her colleagues.

In the end, it was her choice to withdraw the play, (a part of the story I will begrudgingly admit the Weekly Standard got right) writing:

Out of respect for the concerns of students and members of the faculty, I have chosen to withdraw my play The Good Samaritan and cancel the spring Bolton show. I do not want to put my students in the difficult position of choosing between working on my play and supporting their fellow students.  I also want to allow time for the senior major who was designing the lights to find another project to serve as his senior thesis.  To be clear, this is solely my decision as the administration has supported the principles of freedom of expression.”

She goes on to thank the people who have helped her develop the play and says she looks forward to working with the Latinx theatre community on it as it continues to develop.  Who exactly forced her into silence? Where are her censors?

Now to the “Whiteness Group,” which had exactly nothing to do with the events surrounding the cancellation of the play, and is a discussion group aimed at exploring the elements of racial privilege in America. The draconian rules are actually guidelines, the first of which (conveniently left out of the Standard’s coverage) is: “If you have an unpopular opinion, speak up.”

The group did discuss “The Good Samaritan” at one of their meetings, where the discussion centered around what white students can do if they believed the play was genuinely offensive and harmful to their Latinx colleagues. A priest at the college, who was present at the second meeting wrote, “As white people, we can become paralyzed by our sense of shame for our racial privilege or by our fear of accidentally saying something problematic. Neither of those impulses are actually productive for combating racism and white supremacy.”

While the merits of a group which attempts to fix the problems of racism by creating more racial division are debatable, no one can fault the students at Kenyon for wanting to be proactive about tensions they see present in their culture. Nor can I, or anyone else, fault them for wanting to engage in open discussion about the aspects of race, appropriation, representation and privilege that make them most uneasy. They should be applauded for this initiative, not demonized by bad journalists.

Speaking of journalistic dishonesty, can publications like the Weekly Standard please put an end to this kind of niche, knee-jerk, false witch-hunt narrativizing? There is plenty wrong with the left in contemporary discourse – there’s no need to fabricate stories about the end of free speech. It is worth mentioning that the reason I have such a detailed and reliable account of what happened at Kenyon is because of their two very competent journalistic sources, The Kenyon Collegian and The Kenyon Thrill. They tracked the story as it unfolded, provided fair context and included many voices and perspectives. So while professional journalism exists firmly in the partisan sphere, it appears student integrity is alive and well.

What happened and continues to happen at Kenyon is the very essence of free discourse. No one was silenced, no one was denied a platform, all parties acted according to their principles.

This kind of story should warm the liberal heart. Hell, it might even make a good play.

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