Feel Free to Cancel Me It’s ok

Feel Free to Cancel Me It’s ok

Umran Koca | Opinion

In true Caltech fashion, the content for this article came about over midnight coffee at Red Door Café. I was sitting with a group of friends when the topic shifted to freedom of speech on campus. The atmosphere grew heavy and quiet. We were all afraid of saying the “wrong” thing. Finally, I broke the tension.

“Have I told you about the time my East Asian friends canceled me?”

We burst out in laughter, and the conversation got going. In truth, most of the things people are afraid to say – the jokes, the opinions, however politically incorrect – are worth saying at least once. It’s important that you have friends around you who can 1) take a joke 2) call you out. What’s worse is being afraid. That’s when you make the real mistakes.

According to the 2024 College Free Speech Rankings, conducted by College Pulse and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), Caltech earned a title of “Slightly Below Average”, placing 144th on the list of 248 universities (Harvard being dead last at #248, but that does not come as a surprise). Caltech’s ranking was based on surveys of 113 undergraduates.

Students have expressed that they feel afraid to voice opinions different from the accepted few set forth by admin and the supposed majority on campus. A student from the class of 2025 writes, “ I felt COVID precautions were too extreme in the fall of 2022, but I worried I would be perceived as reckless (…) if I expressed these views.” Even when they did, the student admits they acknowledged that “ some people may disagree because they are worried about their health”.

Too often we fall into the trap of “in my opinion”, “it is different for everyone”, and “I can see how some people might disagree”. These feel like cop outs to actually making a point. It should not be the case that to make a point, you must be impervious to criticism. It should not be the case that 61% of students in Caltech are worried about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstands something they have said or done. It speaks volumes that I know the exact number of Republicans that live in my house: we do not speak of them.

In his 2023 LA Times opinion piece, Zach Gottlieb, a high school senior, characterizes the problem as one due to raising kids without the ability to think critically. In one of the best STEM schools in the world, it is astounding how we can think critically on mathematics, physics, computer science, chemistry and much more without putting in the same amount of effort into dialogues on controversial topics. To be fair, we are all struggling with an impossible workload to make much of an effort in conversing. However, when we do get the chance, it is marked by timid and retracted statements, stuff that has been said before, approved and adopted by the general campus community. In such an environment, growth is impossible. We keep circling back to the same issues, the same set of accepted opinions. Gottlieb puts it perfectly: “We’re growing older, but we’re not growing up.”

In a 2020 New York Times piece about the list of banned words developed by Stanford’s IT department, Pamela Paul lays the facts bare. Fewer college students “feel comfortable expressing disagreement, lest their peers go on the warpath.” She likens this phenomenon to being expelled from their “tribe”, becoming “black sheep”. In such a high stakes environment, more and more college students develop anxiety disorders, closing themselves off to any and all criticism by closing themselves off to any and all meaningful expression.

In my time here at Caltech, I have been acutely aware of the boundaries when it comes to what I can and cannot say. I have been called out and called insensitive on numerous occasions. I appreciate the people who have the courage to say so but also add something to the conversation. Was I insensitive because I was ignorant? How am I offending someone? Is this something that should merit further discussion? These are the questions we should be asking, and yes – 99% of the time people are insensitive because they are ignorant. If all of those people receive divine punishment because they don’t immediately self-censor like everyone else, what are the chances that they will remain ignorant and afraid? When did making mistakes become such a taboo?

Recently, our community has been rocked by changes to long-standing traditions like the Blacker Hovse potato cannon. In the October 7, 2023 issue of the Tech, Maxwell Montemayor (ME ‘25, Blacker) reported that “Caltech Administration has banned the firing of the potato cannon as part of Blacker Hovse’s rotation events.” The reason behind this ban was evidently because the cannon would make students who come from war-torn countries, or who have experienced school shootings, uncomfortable. In an email to the community on November 1, 2023, Vice President of Student Affairs Kevin Gilmartin and President Thomas Rosenbaum wrote, “No matter how strongly you may disagree with someone, they have the right to hold and express their views.” Allow me to share my views.

I by no means come from a war-torn country, but I do know the feeling of walking by a bus stop that took the life of 37 people in a suicide bombing, anxious if I will also become a number in the news. When we take away traditions that come from a place of laughter and comradery, like the potato cannon, we are giving unnecessary power to the connotations. In the right situation, a knife could be a weapon of murder. However, a knife could also be the key component to a comforting meal. If we focus on what something might mean, rather than what it means, we are not protecting anyone.

We have seen campus culture limited not only by a ban in traditions but also by calls to repaint murals. In a recent article published in the Tech, Lilia Arrizabalaga (Ay ‘25), Dabney Hovse Steward, put a positive spin on this change. They remind the reader that all art is transitory and that this is an opportunity to produce new art. However, I am not nearly as optimistic about this change as they are. I see this policy as yet another limitation to student culture. Yes, we can paint new murals, but it’s not because we have come to realize the old murals are no longer timely or humorous. It is because they are deemed “offensive”. Art is another form of self expression that is being diluted for the goal of offending the least amount of people possible. Marcos Perez (Ay ‘25, Venerable) expressed that it feels like “admin is taking away some of the key ways for students to enjoy themselves and feel like a part of Caltech, in an environment with rampant mental health problems and imposter syndrome.”

Caption: A mural in Venerable House scheduled to be painted over, allegedly because it is too “violent” Photo Credit: Marcos Perez

The main issue with changes like this is the lack of a student vote. It seems obvious that the people who live in the house should get to decide what they want to see around them or what they want incoming freshmen to know about them. However, they are largely being left out of the conversation and hindered from speaking up by fear of retaliation from “administration”. The point here is not that the administration is wrong, and we should be against them; rather, we should feel comfortable in offering our own voice to issues that predominantly affect us, the community.

In the insular environment that we are creating with these changes, we are not carrying a message of safety and tolerance. We are showing incoming students that they can only have opinions as long as their opinions coincide with what is deemed appropriate.

If you ask me, this is scarier than any violence or instrument of war.