Let us review the Williams Alternative articles we have all read in the wake of Uncomfortable Learning’s non-event featuring Suzanne Venker. I will add my own emphasis.
Zach Wood ’18, an organizer of the event, wrote an opinion piece claiming that some Williams College students view political issues through the lens of “motivated ignorance” resulting from “the myopia of those who look through it.” He also names “a torrent of online bullying” as a key factor in the group’s decision to cancel the event.
Annika Guy ’18, Emily O’Brien ‘18, Gerardo Pelayo Garcia’ 16, and Sam Alterman ’18 collaborated on a piece sharing their desire to host a “peaceful protest” and focus on “silenced” voices. Reflecting on their frustration, they say, “We are not obligated to justify our right to humanity to anyone. And yet, every time controversy arises on this campus, we rally to defend ourselves, and fight for the right to determine our own narratives.”
Alex Sun ’15 wrote in “Why Uncomfortable Learning is Right” against the criticisms that quickly sprouted in response to Zach’s words. He claims that Williams is a microcosm of society and “an insulated place where the usual dynamics of exchange and discussion don’t happen.”
Finally, we come to the most recent article, by Political Science Professor Sam Crane. He identifies “conservative privilege” on campus, and describes Uncomfortable Learning as a hotbed for “a group of conservatives, most notably conservative alumni, who are able to use significant amounts of money, unavailable to others, to advance their ideology.”
I have summed up these four opinions meaning to compare them to one that I’m sure we’re all very acquainted with; an excerpt from the college’s mission statement: “The most versatile, the most durable, in an ultimate sense, the most practical knowledge and intellectual resources that we can offer students are the openness, creativity, flexibility, and power of education in the liberal arts….To serve well our students and the world, Williams embraces core values such as welcoming and supporting in the College community people from all segments of our increasingly diverse society.”
Does our conversation surrounding Uncomfortable Learning, Suzanne Venker, the protest efforts, and our peers’ beliefs follow this statement? The clear answer is a resounding “no.”
Wood describes the discussion around this non-event as a “battlefield;” Guy, O’Brien, Garcia and Alterman accuse Uncomfortable Learning of “financially backing and ideologically contributing to the epidemic of violence against trans women of color in the United States,” equating hiring Venker to assault and murder, and Professor Crane calls for the dissolution of a club that he proclaims is a “conservative” entity, and thereby a privileged oppressor. Facebook and Alternative comments are even more revolting in their ferocity, from the infamous “hands dripping with blood” quote to insistences that Sun— who originally published his opinions anonymously— name himself and stop being a “coward” from the mob’s judgment. No wonder we have had so little constructive debate; building an oasis for free thought and respectable discussion is impossible in a semantic battlefield rife with murder impositions and competing ideologies. No wonder our discussions have mostly occurred under anonymous handles in Alternative and Yik Yak comment sections.
At every turn we see threats of violence, name-calling, language more suited to fistfights than debate, and branding those we disagree with as some other— “feminists,” “anti-feminists,” “conservatives,” “liberals,” so on. Where is the “welcoming?” Where is the “supporting?” Where is any semblance of actual discussion? We are four articles in and only an alumnus, Alex Sun, has mentioned, in a final fleeting remark, the common quality of every perspective on this issue—insularity.
We have not represented our beliefs as “versatile” or “durable,” as our mission statement tells us to. We have been neither “open,” nor “creative,” nor “flexible,” and we certainly have not shown the world “the power of education in the liberal arts.” We have built walls, separated our sacred beliefs from those of our classmates— our enemies— and fled from the sight of discomfort. We have attacked each other on Facebook and Yik Yak, in comment sections, and in passing, and, not least of all, in our minds. We believe ourselves scholars and thinkers, yet we scream at the smallest slight or perception of provocation.
I am a first generation student from a working class background. For me, Williams represented a chance to enter a world of prestige, opportunity, and most importantly, a haven of diverse and intelligent thoughts, where I would be encouraged to evaluate my beliefs. I thought I could escape my past life, where disagreements ended with insults and fistfights, opinion equated to fact, and challenges were disregarded, rather than embraced. What I have learned at Williams is that we cannot outrun our problems and our instinct to fight or flee from discomfort. We can never escape strife, or opposition, because we are an essential part of our discomfort. We are the ones who foster our own discontent. If it will ever be abated, we need to change.
We need to talk about compromise, reconciliation, and attempt to work together to create a speaker series that challenges our beliefs without devolving us into mudslingers. We should be founding community discussions that acknowledge, recognize, and attempt to reconcile our discordant beliefs, rather than creating insular echo chambers. We should make suggestions, rather than accusations. How can things change? How can we make our perspectives and opinions understood? How can we make this school an environment for productive exchange? We need to talk about these things that make us uncomfortable before we forget how to discuss them.
Let’s stop attacking Zach on his Facebook page. Let’s stop ridiculing his work and person on the protestors’ “One Step Forward and We Keep Going” Facebook group. Let’s stop calling our peers oversensitive and fragile. Let’s stop suffocating what little productive dialogue we are capable of generating under a toxic deluge of hatred and false conclusions. Let’s stop reducing our peers, people who managed to gain a spot at (formerly) one of the most highly regarded colleges in the nation, to archetypes and absolutist figures. Let’s stop dragging the name of our college through the mud because of our own failings. Let’s stop acting like greedy, stubborn children before we are cast back into the real world insulated and alone. Let’s stop relapsing into the same ineffective cycle of hatred, insularity, and false progress, and let’s start moving toward the productive and respectful dialogue we promised ourselves when we decided to come to Williams.