Saturday, November 14, 2015

Can It At Least Be Subject to Debate...?

To say I have found myself flummoxed and frustrated by what is transpiring right now on college campuses across America, highlighted by events at Mizzou and Yale, would be a gross understatement. I'm almost obsessed with trying to understand it while constantly fighting a kind of frightened revulsion.

A friend sent a link to a New Yorker piece that leans strongly in support of the activism I'm struggling to support even as I (as a moderate liberal) agree with some of the concerns and larger issues at play.

For example, I believe #BlackLivesMatter. Yes yes, All Lives and Cops Lives matter. But these are not exclusive notions. And Black Lives Matter. It can stand alone, and it needs to stand alone, without exceptions or "but but buts" from those who feel like they got left out of the circle.

And I believe the incarceration problem in this country is a problem of systemic racism. "The New Jim Crow" is a painful book to read and better ignored than digested by anyone who wants to believe we have moved beyond issues of race and prejudice in this country.

Below is a very slightly adjusted version of my email reply to her. It is full of questions. I don't pretend to have many answers.

First thought:
Faculty and students at both Yale and the University of Missouri who spoke to me about the protests were careful to point out that they were the culmination of long-simmering concerns. “It’s clear that the students’ anger and resentment were long in coming,” (from the New Yorker piece)
How "long in coming" can anger and resentment at Yale or Mizzou be from a sophomore? Now, a sophomore or junior may have long-simmering concerns about racism in general, in society in general. But resentment aimed at their specific institution? They've only been there a year. Or two years. It's not fair to pile a lifetime of experience with racism at the feet of an institution that only began its relationship with you one-tenth of your life ago.

And this is a big concern for me. Colleges are being expected to create an environment that is not possible to be created, a space free of drunk rednecks (who might or might not be students), a place free of people who draw penises and swastikas on bathroom stalls (you can't even escape that at Tremont Tavern).

So, what really is the bigger concern here? That an anonymous person uses the N-word on YikYak, or that we have decided that reading the N-word on YikYak can have the capacity to render a student incapable of feeling safe on their college campus, of attending class or eating properly?

Second thought:
The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. (from the New Yorker piece)
This is a dangerous arrangement of logic upon which to agree. Who defines "the powerful"? Who defines the "relatively disempowered"? Am I powerful*? Is Hillary Clinton disempowered or powerful? Is Ben Carson powerful or disempowered? Is the female gay Chinese student who, at one of these rallies, said "black people can be racists" and was booed and hushed... is she part of the powerful, or part of the disempowered? Is her perspective permitted? Or does it "hurt the brand" as we the powerful marketers like to say.

Is the house master of a Yale section the "powerful"? Who gets to decide that? Because when I see that interaction, I see an outraged young woman who is being supported by a group of others, standing in the face of a single human being, unarmed and trying to stay calm. Who has the power there?

Third Thought:
On NPR and in several other places, the word "empathy" has been used. The disempowered and disenfranchised are demanding empathy. But again, who gets to determine whether someone is attempting to empathize? Who gets to judge that? Increasingly we're being set up to believe that only the disenfranchised or disempowered has the right to determine whether another is empathizing properly or sufficiently.

I can't help but believe it would behoove many people in this moment to reread or rewatch "The Crucible."

Toward the end, as the accusations have piled up, as the veracity of accusations verge on the ludicrous, the self-certain and self-righteous Deputy Governor Danforth explains his method of "trying" these cases. He uses the logic that witchcraft is a crime with only two witnesses, the witch and the victim, because it is an invisible event and cannot have bystander witnesses. Further, the witch cannot be trusted, so the witch's testimony is rendered moot. What is left, singularly, is the testimony of the "victims." This is the logic of the Salem Witch Trials. Those did not end well. It is the logic of the Red Scare. That did not end well. And, increasingly, it looks like the kind of logic being cultivated on college campuses in matters of sexual assault and prejudice. It is difficult for me to see how this ends any better than those previous examples where such logic was the driving force.

How are we as a society -- and particularly the young generation currently growing up before us -- going to define "safety"? How will we define "pain" and "threat"? Who gets to determine what is safe, what causes pain? (It would seem, at least in part, that President Obama might agree with this concern.)

More distressingly for me, when did a college become more responsible for creating an antiseptic Disney theme park free of pain and completely safe than for creating a space for learning, for a kind of education that can be difficult, and combative, and challenging? When did it become admirable for us -- on all sides of these issues, mind you -- to demand agreement rather than negotiating and working toward better mutual understandings?

This friend also passed along another helpful article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Helpful, I claim, because it seeks to aid in understanding.

On the other hand, there is the almost satirical list of demands at Amherst. Demands. As in, hostage negotiations. I honestly thought these were a joke. That they are not speaks to the level of hysteria and loss of sense of proportion happening in a lot of theoretically intelligent young minds.

* - I agree that I am the beneficiary of white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege. So, arguably, is my unemployed drug addicted racist second cousin in smalltown Tennessee. Does this privilege make either of us "powerful"? I'm not so sure I can make that leap.

[NOTE: The above was written Friday afternoon, hours before learning of the attacks in Paris. I am cyncial but hopeful that these events might give us all a moment to pause when it comes to terms like "safe space" and "pain" and "justice." But I doubt it.]


Bob said...

I'm not looking to disagree with you, because I don't, but I do wonder how many microaggressions a sophomore of certain races, even at a nice school, has encountered in his life, and how many more if she is a woman? I have no way of knowing when enough is enough, but given a societal "trigger," like the situations at Yale and Mizzou, I'll bet all of that comes bubbling up, whether justified by the situation or not.

Billy said...

@Bob - Likewise, I mostly agree with your comments. Still, it seems to me the answer to "how many microaggressions" was, from (pick your start date)-2014: "A whole lot more than now." Another answer could be "More than anyone should have to calmly tolerate." But now that we've given microaggressions a name, it seems a lot of people are fighting over one another to claim victimhood. For those who are "aggressors" in this, there are lessons to be learned and valued, adjustments in understandings to be made. But for the "victims"? It just seems like they're getting weaker and whinier with every poopswastika that makes them so rattled they can't attend class from the trauma. Not to mention they seem entirely unwilling to acknowledge potential hypocrisy or contradictions in their actions.

Example: everyone is perturbed by Paris. Are we guilty of microaggression or prejudice that we failed to properly mourn Beirut, or Kenya, or (insert non-Eurozone country here)? Or does it make some kind of reasonable, not-entirely-racist sense that we might be more bothered by an attack on France than on Beirut? I'm writing all of this because I'm struggling, and I'm not sure I have any single, immovable answer that satisfies me.

G. B. Miller said...

It should be subject to a debate, but more often than not, it's not. Recently we had a situation out here in CT a few months ago, where a columnist (Iragi war veteran) who wrote a thoughtful op-ed piece in the student newspaper, got vilified by the student body for daring to question the "black lives matter" movement (did I mention the writer is black).

The student body responded in the usual way: vilifying the writer, making demands on the admin to defund the newspaper, stealing copies of the newspaper and more pointedly, the student editors threw the writer under the bus.

Fortunately cooler heads prevailed (the admin's) and the students are back to living in their self-imposed reality bubble.

In re: to the protests at Yale and Missouz, all I ask (especially at Yale, where the local newspapers are simply fawning all over the student body)) is to show me the proof that derogatory comments were written on the dorm door of a muslim student. I don't take anyone's words at face value for anything anymore, so physical proof is needed for me to change my opinion.