The past two days the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP), a photo exhibit that is touring college campuses, made a stop in Chapel Hill. The university sent out a warning e-mail yesterday morning to explain that the exhibit would be on display and some may find it offensive and should feel free to seek counseling services if needed. In my busy time I didn’t bother opening the e-mail initially. I also didn’t have classes that would require me to walk through the main quad, so I didn’t know anything that was happening except for the people walking through the rest of campus and on social media complaining about the insensitive photos outside of Wilson Library and how it was disgusting to see such images where tour groups, families, children, and those affected by abortion could see it without proper warning. What? I had seen some fairly straightforward protests from anti-abortion activists before so it sounded rather over-the-top to me; it’s a free country, free speech. But I refused to say anything until I saw it for myself.
Today I looked at the exhibit, featuring graphic photos of aborted fetuses next to graphic photos from widely-known historic genocides, comparing abortion in the US to genocide. I’m not going to share my opinion here because I don’t want the focus of this post to be about me or my beliefs, but the exhibit got me thinking a lot, as many things have since I’ve been in college. Mostly, I thought about what it means to be a college student, a person, a global citizen. And I really thought about what freedom of speech means. I still don’t have the answers but here are a few of my thoughts.
I would never say that it’s okay to give someone the legal right to be insensitive or offensive to someone else, but those are both very subjective topics. Everyone is offended by different things as language itself is ambiguous and subjective. We all have deeply rooted personal reasons for why we believe what we believe. It would be nice if we could all debate and communicate and persuade without stepping on toes and simply showing the better sides to our own argument, but it’s not possible. The members of GAP have opinions and an idea they feel is important to share based on their beliefs. They have every right to share their opinion. The problem a lot of people have on campus is how they are spreading their opinion: is it offensive or freedom of speech? I started thinking about whether free speech means you can say whatever you want however you want to, or if there are boundaries within we can make our arguments.
This is a public university, liberal in nature and committed to education. Education itself, true education, is uncensored. We can’t truly wish to educate a group of students from every US state and territory and several countries by censoring our students from anything we feel may possibly offend. It doesn’t teach us anything about the various viewpoints in the world or how to react and intelligently defend our own beliefs. Moreso, who would make the decision of whether or not something is offensive? We wouldn’t dare put that responsibility in the hands of one or more humans who have their own natural biases and offensives with them. History itself is made of offensive actions that we can’t turn a blind eye to. So, was it wrong for the exhibit to come here? I don’t think so.
Should free speech be censored? This is the question that has bobbled in my head for the past couple of days. A lot of students who protested the exhibit said there weren’t adequate signs warning pedestrians of the graphic photos. Some even volunteered as escorts to walk people around it. A lot of people said they are entitled to their opinion, but using graphic photos where everyone can see and passing flyers featuring these pictures was not the right way. I do think that comparing abortion to genocide is an unfair exaggeration given the definition and context of genocide in comparison to the widely varying situations of women faced with this personal decision. However, they have the right to do so and it’s making a shocking impact, which is what they intended to do. Yes, it can trigger negative emotions for some, yes some women on campus who have been affected by this issue will not appreciate it to say the least, but should we charge the GAP organizers with the responsibility of thinking about these people when designing and posting the exhibit? Should we veil all of our opinions behind the idea of not offending the views of the groups we oppose? If they believe abortion is similar to genocide and want to make the visual statement to shock people is it fair to make them sculpt it with the emotions of pro-choice supporters in mind? Or is it wrong for them to post these pictures without thinking about the feelings they could cause for so many people, including young children?
I’m glad I go to a university where our thoughts can be challenged and discussions can be sparked by events such as this. If anything we can further study how free speech may or may not cross the line at times, and how to properly protest or support important values and ideals. I would love to hear your thoughts on the project, reactions, and freedom of speech in general. Sometimes it’s not about a side being right or wrong, sometimes it’s about the larger abstract ideas of expression, empathy, and freedom.