To quote that one Bob Dylan song from the ’60s, “The times, they are a-changin’.” It’s true–we live in a time of dramatic social and societal change. Allow me to be self-indulgently prosaic for a moment and consider about some of the things that have occurred in the past decade: we elected an African-American President, legalized marijuana (medically and recreationally) in several states, flew private spacecraft out of the atmosphere, and developed cars that don’t even need drivers. Personally, I think that’s pretty damn impressive.
But in addition to the things I’ve listed above, our generation has witnessed a changing social atmosphere similar to that of the counterculture movement that I’m sure your parents–or that weird uncle–have talked about at some point. Social norms and conventions are being challenged more than ever, and this transition has brought with it good and bad.
As I’m sure many of you are aware, there was a lot of talk about microaggressions and the marginalizing effects they had on campus last year, but a lesser-examined facet of that debate was the effect that such sensitivity had on the overall intellectual environment at Williams. I know some of you may be thinking, “But, dear author, how can social awareness ever be a bad thing?” My answer: it’s not. People need to be offended by certain happenings and then make that known for things to change. It is the increased awareness that follows such interactions that drives the dynamic nature of the social climate at Williams. The question that now arises is, “How much is too much?”
While the microaggression discussion generally led to the consensus that they were detrimental to the community, I believe the aforementioned debate and other social changes have launched us into a period of hypersensitivity that has hindered much of what I thought the Williams intellectual community would become in my time here. I expected to have to change my behavior and colloquial speech slightly when coming to college, as is natural when assimilating into almost any new surrounding, but I did not anticipate the change that was actually necessitated. I often felt like I was walking through a microaggression minefield, dodging the utterance of some unintentional phrase that would be scooped up by someone who felt victimized by it and thrown back at me as ammunition. Granted, nothing like that ever happened, and the prior metaphor was more a product of my own hypersensitivity, but in order to be more “politically correct” and “aware” I found myself becoming more and more risk-averse when it came to intellectual conversations with my peers. After all, I did not know many of them all that well and had no idea what may or may not offend them. That was not what I envisioned college to be like. I expected to talk about the tough things in life–perhaps get offended, offend someone else, or burn a bridge–but not to be scared of bringing up delicate topics. Yes, I have largely been speaking in the first-person up until this point, but I don’t think that my experience is a unique one. It seems to be a campus-wide problem. The increased sensitivity and the quick jump to be offended by a mounting array of circumstances that accompany it has had an adverse affect on our campus dialogue. It has gotten to the point that dissenting opinions are no longer evaluated for their merit, and are often dismissed immediately after being stamped with claims of misogyny, racism, and discrimination. This has led to a severe polarization on conflicting issues. Those holding moderate points of view are dissuaded from voicing their opinions on heated issues for fear of being attacked by the opposing extreme, allowing those holding the more intense opinions to run the table. It has become a game of sorts, in which the group that can most often be the victim possesses the greatest power to strike down any opposition using the sword of the persecuted.
The effects, as I have seen them, have been two-fold. The first: pure, intellectual discourse has been all but impeded when it comes to touchy subjects. If both sides of an issue don’t feel comfortable voicing their stance, can any real debate occur? At a place like Williams that claims to be an “intellectual institution” this poses a serious problem. Part of the college experience that the liberal arts mantra embodies is becoming the most well rounded individual possible. If one never faces opposition with an open mind, how will one deal with conflict later in life? Automatically dismissing contrary beliefs prevents any possibility of learning from a contrasting perspective, and when immersed in a community of so many bright individuals, doing so should be a crime.
The second: quickly claiming victim status essentially groups both those victimized and the offenders. This fosters a top-down model, where people are categorized based on one’s initial perceptions of another before working toward a more detailed understanding. If someone is placed into a disliked out-group based on this way of thinking, they can be dismissed. Williams as well as the archetypal “college experience”–long revered in Western intellectual culture–emphasize the impact of the individual on the campus community, but when we place our peers into bins based on superficial knowledge or a single statement, we prohibit those people from having a full impact on the community and deny ourselves the full potential that Williams has to offer.
So here I sit, rather conflicted, for social awareness and the culture of persecution that have arisen comprise a double-edged blade. They present both positives and negatives, and leave me, for one, unsure of what to do about it.