By: Ilan Hirschfield | Opinions  | 

I Am Not a Colonialist: Why I Wholeheartedly Support Postering the Nagel Mural Wall

Søren Kierkegaard, a nineteenth-century Danish philosopher mused that “people demand the freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” Put differently, members of society have the freedom to consider what to say and what not to say, yet so often they fail to exercise it. They instead demand the freedom of speech, espousing platforms that happen to pop into their heads, failing to consider the aptness of such speech and how the public may respond in kind.

Around one year ago, the Wilf campus turned into a case study in this faux pas/free speech conversation. Two student groups, one anonymous and the other the YU Feminist Club, covered the mural on the Nagel Commons dividing wall with their own creative displays. The former display highlighted similarities between the United States government’s current immigration policy and its rejection of European Jewish immigrants during World War II while the latter display consisted of name-dissociated printouts of sexist comments sourced from students on the Wilf campus and YU-related online forums, raising awareness of sexism on campus.

Various members of the YU student community came out as proponents for using the mural wall for such activity. For example, an anonymous student group on the Beren campus put up a similar immigrant display in the entrance hall of 245 Lexington Avenue. Yosef Sklar wrote a relatively short yet well thought-out piece laying out theoretical ground rules in support of such ideological usage of the mural wall.

Doron Levine, on the other hand, penned an editorial following the incidents chastising such student use of the mural. He posited that covering the mural to publicize any ideas or causes, regardless of their merits, egregiously violates basic etiquette of keeping art in the public arena exposed to the public. Such pursuits can too easily be interpreted as political appropriation, a colonialism of sorts. Not forgetting the physical reality on the ground, Levine also mentioned that this “vandalism” also jeopardized the mural’s physical safety.

While I understand Levine’s concern for the status quo and the mural’s physical condition, I unequivocally support such postering of the mural on both ideological and logistical grounds. However, in order for such an initiative to succeed on campus, it requires the involvement of student government and the Office of Student Life (OSL).

As I stated above, Levine said the architects made a nearly unforgiveable faux pas when they decided to cover the mural; they did the “unintuitive thing” and were “renegade[s]” and “transgressive” when they decided to raise their voices and stir the political pot. Put bluntly, that isn’t ok—at least according to Levine. Did these craftsmen really do the unintuitive thing? Yes, yes they did. However, such activity highlights the fact that transgression works as a method of increasing public awareness of issues and advancing social change, one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s cornerstones in his sociological theory of nonviolent protest (to delve further into this topic, I recommend reading Dr. King’s A Letter from a Birmingham Jail). Take, for instance, the occurrence of “Freedom Riding” in 1961 when white and African-American civil rights activists would ride busses through the American South to protest segregated bus terminals. This activity garnered violent reactions from whites who passionately opposed integration on the ground in the South, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s previously-issued rulings denouncing the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal.” Despite the deeply intertwined nature of the civil rights movement’s method of exposing racial injustice and the racial injustice itself, the technique still has great efficacy today in alerting the public to injustices that plague our world, whatever the status quo may say.

This worshiping of the status quo dovetails cleanly into Levine’s next point about how members of high society must respect art in order to participate. The designers, he said, had no such respect. They committed an act of “erasing art,” turned such activity into a “bona fide addiction, at least a developing habit,” and modified the plaster into a “wailing wall.” I repeat myself here, but with a twist: Levine accounts accurately what social code they violated, but this time he refused to recognize their intent in a different way; namely, the physical reality of their work. From only reading his description of the events, one gets the impression that the student activists brought gallons of wall paint to Nagel Commons at the stroke of midnight and hurled them onto the wall, muting the expressive mural for eternity; in its place, they painted their respective displays. In reality, the student designers stuck posters and pieces of paper to the mural wall with painter’s tape, preemptively avoiding damaging the wall with the display.

How else can we see the taking of preemptive measures in this case? In the materials’ positioning on the mural wall. The students took care to cover as much of the blank space on the mural as they could with their content before gingerly encroaching onto the actual artwork. This attack on the student activists’ credibility that fails to take into account intent or context represents but a tile in the mosaic of the troubling trend at universities of students draining the rainbow (read: complexity) from discussions about thorny issues like immigration and sexism (I direct the reader to an insightful essay in The American Scholar titled “Low Definition in Higher Education” written by Lyell Asher about this oversimplification of the human experience in universities).

Despite his blistering critique, Levine offered the brazen student activists a brief respite, conceding that “it would be pitiful to thoughtlessly fall in line with established norms. Sufficiently dire circumstances can call for desperate measures, and it’s hard to imagine a social norm the breaking of which would not be warranted in some far-out scenario.” In other words, stand for something, otherwise you’ll fall for anything. This concession would come off as wise, however it exists in a vacuum. Meaning, Levine didn’t propose an alternate and more appropriate outlet for the publication of ideas that would garner student interest and attention. I lament this fact. Why? Not because I disagree with Levine on such public use of the mural wall and want to see him freewheel in lambasting the student activists, giving me all the more reason to disagree with him.

Rather, I lament that though these incidents opened our eyes to the logistical fact that no physical space on campus exists solely for the publication of ideas, Levine did not explore this fact. Yes, we have bulletin boards around campus. But students mainly use those to advertise club events they planned. In other words, publicizing ideas beyond one’s circle of friends on campus through the creation of a club requires the application of significant time, money, and effort to get it off the ground. No reasonable middle-ground option for publication of ideas exists between the two. Given the fact that students on our campus consistently run to and from morning programs, classes, and meetings throughout the day, creating a format that includes the mural wall can successfully utilize smaller blocks of time to effectively engage with ideas. Ideas publicized wouldn’t even have to necessarily take on a governmental political tone.

Turning this proposal into policy would not require student government or OSL to exert a great deal of effort. The two groups could use Yosef Sklar’s theoretical rulebook as a guide for ensuring that everyone who has an interest in using the wall gets an opportunity to put up their own content. I am not a colonist—for if I were, I would allow only some students to use the mural in this way and forbid others from doing the same. Such rules for mural usage could include a twenty-four hour time limit on a display’s placement on the wall, the prohibition of tearing down other people’s displays within twenty-four hours of it being put up, and the prohibition of making personal attacks via a display on the wall. A person may put up a display on the wall only once a month. Student government could provide a Google Form which students would fill out to indicate the content they’d like to share on the wall, in addition to the date and time frame requested, giving them a quick and easy avenue for seeking approval. Class representatives could lead the approval process and rotate to meet monthly with OSL or the president or vice-president of YSU to decide on the “final mural schedule” for a given calendar month. The class representatives could then have the obligation of communicating via email with the student (or students) whose request was approved, confirming the date and time frame for the display and reiterating the mural code of conduct as mentioned above.

In expressing my wholehearted support for such creative use of the mural, I do not mean to create division or “sow seeds of discord,” as Levine so sharply accused the mural planners of doing. I support such use in an effort to generate unity on our campus. However, when I say unity I do not mean unity of opinion in terms of ideology. I mean unity of supporting a space on campus for fostering productive, stimulating, and thoughtful conversation about the ideas that give our world three dimensions and lend themselves to consideration of our humanity.

I am not a colonialist, but I support postering the Nagel Commons mural wall. And so, I encourage the student body to seize this opportunity and tell the student government and OSL what ideas drive you. Help the campus community build a space that will endure long after your tenure at this university. Put ‘em up, Wilf. The posters, that is.