It was no surprise that Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri (Mizzou), resigned in the face of campus protests, a football team boycott, and a hunger strike. Many lost confidence in his leadership after his inaction to months of simmering tension brought about by well-publicized incidents of racism on campus. But now, there’s a silent majority at Mizzou wondering why Wolfe had to lose his career because he couldn’t stop a few drunk students on a campus of forty-thousand from uttering the N-word. They say that ending his career won’t stop the racists from being racist. They say that student activism went too far this time.
There’s a similar firestorm happening at Yale. After administrators sent out an email to the community urging racial sensitivity on the matter of Halloween costumes, the Associate Master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s undergraduate residences, voiced her disagreement that administrators needed to imply what constitutes acceptable norms of behavior. The uproar was swift. Her husband, Master of the same college, was harangued with a torrent of obscenities from a student as he defended his wife and explained his commitment to fostering an “intellectual space”. A student screamed that he instead should have been committed to fostering a safe space, or as she put it—“a home for students.” News organizations were quick to seize upon footage of this encounter. They say this was another example of student activism’s ugly side.
We’ve had our share of controversy at Williams College. The events on our campus are a small piece of something larger. It can be dramatic and uncomfortable, and it won’t end anytime soon. But it’s also an opportunity for personal growth. The following essay paints the perspective that I’ve evolved towards through hours of discussion and reflection.
I hope you can find something of value in it.
The Culture Wars unfolding on campuses across America are under an unprecedented amount of national exposure, and the general public usually feels more contempt than sympathy when it sees footage of students screaming at a lone faculty member who simply voiced a different opinion. This is, after all, a war of perceptions. As a liberal, I’ll be the first to say that many liberals are truly quick to bleed (in a figurative sense). No one punched them or even poked them with a pen. But they will bleed anyway and they will bleed everywhere.
And yet, for all that they lack in perspective or self-awareness, they make up for with self-love. And for every time they blow something out of proportion, they make us stop and pay attention to a problem.
It’s not unfair for critics to point out that campuses seem to be dominated by “victim culture,” a value system in which righteousness is given to the alleged victim regardless of the presence or absence of any evidence against the alleged aggressor. The rape hoax debacle at UVA is a case in point.
But the truth about the Culture Wars isn’t a binary: “dictators in diapers” undoubtedly exist, but so do patterns of discrimination, social exclusion, and administrative bias. “Victim culture” is a powerful force on campus, but it thrives alongside rape culture, classism, and racial antipathy.
An international student from Zimbabwe once described Williams College to me as “about as close to a utopia as you can get”.
If you were to ask us if we experienced racism at Williams, our answer would be a resounding “No.”
We say “No” because we maintain there’s a difference between experiencing racism and experiencing racial insensitivity. The former is a system which codifies advantage and disadvantage on the basis of race. The latter is an expression of prejudice, which is a human flaw.
And still, we noticed how class, culture, color, and nationality often left students on unequal footing when they came here. While you have no choice but to start where you stand, inequality can be banal, and exclusion works in subtle ways.
It’s concerning that in 2015, universities are still declaring their “firsts” in so many things: the first Black dean of Yale’s undergraduate college, the first Black president of an American liberal arts college, the first female bathrooms to be installed on the floors of the physics department at a university, and the list goes on.
Universities, like other institutions of public life in America, are not immune to the legacy of generations of codified exclusion. It’s not surprising that one-third of residential colleges at Yale are named after slave-owners. Beyond Yale, it’s not surprising that students of color experience higher rates of mental illness. The point is no longer whether they’re overreacting to Halloween costumes, but whether there exists a disparity between the experience that universities advertised to them and what they actually experience on a day-to-day basis. As one alumnus from Yale wrote, “It is ordinary enough to find advertisements making promises that products don’t deliver. But most products don’t cost so much or take up four years of a life.”
When you rephrase the problem this way, it’s not such a hard sell anymore.
I was the shock jock in college who told outlandish stories and unorthodox views on the radio. I was the everyman who never hesitated to throw an off-color joke to get a laugh. I’m a contradiction of competitiveness, neuroticism, empathy, and above all, unfiltered skepticism. And the skeptic inside me couldn’t shake off the feeling that student activism was often not so much a means to an end, but a means onto itself—an endless indulgence in public attention, cathartic excitement, and messianic hoo-ha.
And so I fought the battle against political correctness. I did my time in those trenches. Somewhere in that mess, we stopped listening to each other. We found ourselves at the most prestigious college in America and yet so far away from one another. I was exhausted by the time I graduated.
And still, the political winds will keep on changing. I’ve come to accept that.
Maybe it was inevitable that I would come to realize that skepticism, aside from its healthy doses, can never be a real system of beliefs on which to base your values. Skepticism is simply the negation of ideas, thoughts, and sometimes, facts. It’s too easy. And it just doesn’t satisfy.
Here are some facts that are impossible to negate: American students pour onto college campuses from a society shaped by socio-economic inequality, poor upwards mobility, and racial disparities brought about by generations of discrimination.
To dismiss and negate this picture means that somehow I spent four years in college and learned nothing of value.
Wolfe lost his job because in the face of human anger, he clung to the role of the skeptic. His lack of acknowledgement of a string of racist incidents at Mizzou suggests he failed to connect them to a larger pattern of everyday prejudice. Those suspicions were driven home when protestors asked him if he understood what “systematic oppression” meant, to which he answered —“Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe you have the equal opportunity to succeed.” Here was the tale of a well-intentioned man playing an old, old game: blaming the victim for being victimized. It was the falling domino that brought all the other pieces down.
That’s a hard lesson for university administrators everywhere. For the Masters of Silliman College at Yale, who are next in line to lose their jobs, they need to swallow their pride, take a break from debating with angry students, and just listen to what they have to say, no matter how melodramatic they may come off. After all, Yale’s intellectual reputation notwithstanding, the job of a residential college Master is to foster a safe space rather than an intellectual one. It’s written on Yale’s website. And it’s exactly what those bleeding hearts have been crying out loud the whole time. The lesson? If you can just get over your aversion to the manner that your detractors are delivering their message for ten minutes, you might actually be surprised by what you hear.
There’s good reason to be concerned about the danger to free speech and intellectual discourse on America’s campuses amidst all the Culture Wars drama. It’s a concern that even liberal professors share. Whether it’s rescinding a job offer from a professor who holds unpopular political stances or opposing the invitation of a speaker who espouses unpopular beliefs, hiding from scary ideas is not a viable way of moving forward.
But what’s happening at Yale, Mizzou, and other campuses isn’t about free speech. It’s about racism.
And to dismiss your minority peers’ experiences with prejudice and exclusion, along with their frustrations about it, is also an exercise in hiding from scary ideas.
What was supposed to be a conversation on the extent to which patterns of exclusion exist within America’s universities has now been overshadowed by footage of faculty members shoving journalists away from public spaces, and trolls on Yik Yak making threats against Black students. It’s easy to become fixated on the most vicious modes of expression and make them the face of all your detractors. But this distracts us from the key issues, empowers the skeptic inside us, and encourages us to turn inwards rather than listen to what the other side has to say. Somewhere along the line, one can only hope that the truth won’t get lost in all the scum.