UCSD “Colony” Ban: Bad Philosophy with Probably Good Results

by Josh Marxen
Original post here.


When the word “ban” appeared in the headlines of the UCSD Guardian my jaw dropped. According to the headline, AS had passed a ban on the use of the word “colony” at UCSD. The idea that students could want to issue any kind of word ban at a University was insulting, and I almost felt guilty by association.


This indignation quickly reverted to disbelief. I read the article twice, but I began to doubt the term. Were students really seeking to impose a ban – an enforceable rule prohibiting something – on the use of the word “colony?” The only fact indicating the desire for a ban is the title of the AS resolution, showing that their goal is to “remove the word… from the UCSD community.” But this doesn’t necessarily require a “ban,” as defined above (although one cannot be certain the students passing the resolution really cared for precise definitions). It could simply be a campaign to convince the student body that the use of the word is undesirable, and encourage them not to use it.


But regardless of the means used to remove the word “colony” from UCSD, the language as written cannot possibly be realized. If it is implemented as anything less than a ban, students will continue use it just as infrequently as they already do to conduct their history studies. It is impossible to study history without using the word “colony.” If, on the other hand, they try something as foolish as a ban, a torrent of threatened lawsuits will quickly and righteously wash the ban from the University. If AS could not shut down the Koala for dropping the n-bomb on the student body, they have no hope for stopping people from using the word “colony.”


Of course, this is just an analysis of the language, and really only the language of the title. The intent of the resolution is probably not adequately expressed by this language, and is probably not as radical as the title makes it sound. The goal is really much narrower than banning the word all over campus. They simply want campus fraternities and sororities to change the name of their “colonization ceremony”, a celebration of the fraternity/sorority’s establishment as a chapter at UCSD. While I think this is a silly request, it is not unreasonable, and the Greek community at UCSD seems to be willing to cooperate with the change.


So, overall, the results of this poorly written resolution will probably be net-positive. Fewer people will have their feelings hurt by the term, and a discussion among the UCSD community was sparked that has left us all with food for thought. One wonders whether these results were really unintended, whether this “ban” was intentionally designed to fail in its overt goal, but to succeed in the covert goal of making a change by exposing controversy and stirring debate with outrageous proposals.


But even if this was the work of some such political mastermind, the incident has revealed philosophical errors among the crowd attempting to institute the “ban”. While I may be unusually uncompromising in my opposition to word or language bans at any university, banning the word “colony” would represent a new low for university censorship. A staunch opponent of censorship can at least sympathize with the desire to ban racial, religious, and ethnic slurs, and epithets for sexual/gender orientation and the like – things the Supreme Court might recognize as “fighting words.” But the language of the AS resolution erroneously puts “colony” in the same category. From the resolution: “the term colony carries historical biases based on race in the United States due to the colonization and genocide of Native Americans by European settlers beginning in Virginia in 1607… this term also carries historical biases based on race with anybody who has been affected by colonization, directly or indirectly, including but not limited to historically underrepresented people.”


These claims don’t hold water. “Colonist” is not a historical or modern epithet (at least not towards the indigenous colonized people whose feelings we are trying to protect). People do not use the word “colony” to demean a people. While the resolution cites sources verifying that Virginia was a colony, it fails to establish that “colony” was ever used as an epithet. It may have a negative connotation, but not a pejorative one. That AS Sixth College senator Allison Bagnol genuinely feels “triggered” by the word “colony,” as she stated in an interview with the Guardian, is dubious. In fact, to be able to say that one identifies with a colonized people strengthens the argument for sympathy, precisely because the word “colony” carries with it the negative connotations it has earned by the oppression wrought by historical instances of colonization. I ask the reader to consider the following: If, out of context, you hear person Y say that “X is a colony” or “X is a colonized people,” would you think Y is demeaning X, or that Y is trying to elicit sympathy for X? If you are having trouble deciding, imagine if instead Y had said “X is a(n) [insert epithet here].”


The above discussion misses the issue a bit by drawing a weak equivalence between “trigger words” and “epithets.” The question of whether the word “holds racial bias” is different from the question of whether it evokes psychological trauma. I could begin an argument challenging the claim that the word “colony” evokes this kind of trauma, but I will cut to a more important criticism. If you honestly cannot read or use the word identifying the nature of the oppression of your people without your brain buckling, you have no hope of educating others about the historical injustice tied to colonization. Call Voldemort Voldemort – don’t dance around it with “he-who-must-not-be-named.” If you can’t do that, at least try not to ban others from doing so.


I suspect (and admit that there is no proof for it) that the offense does not really come from the term “colonization” itself, but rather from the fact that it was a sorority that used it. Fraternities and sororities, from the outside, have the stereotype of being socially oppressive and conformist organizations, as well as being preoccupied with partying and sports at the expense of academic success. I believe the UCSD community, a nerdy community which takes pride in the defensive colonization of the beloved (and sadly retired) CLICS library and in voting against transitioning to a Division 1 sports school, is predisposed to interpret a sorority’s “colonization ceremony” as an attack on this identity, in the same way that the colonies of western empires destroyed the lives and cultures of the indigenous populations of the colonized area.


But both theories leave the questions “why UCSD?” and “why 2014?” unanswered. Presumably, fraternities and sororities have been using this term all over America for ages, and it has never generated any controversy. This is a question I still can’t answer, and I urge readers to try and figure that out.


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