This post is part of a series of reflections on the recent events on campus. If you have anything that you would like to contribute, please feel free to reach out to us at staff[at]wesleying[dot]org.
The past few weeks have seen a lot of turmoil within our community, most notably the hospitalizations and arrests, and reactions to them, both within and beyond Wesleyan. I hope to speak to the ways that we have addressed these events, as well as other contentious issues, namely the DKE lawsuit and the recent WSA meetings concerning first generation students and institutional structure.
At times like these, it is important to talk to each other, in order to process, to heal, and to examine the needs of our communities. These are events that we should discuss, both as individuals and community members. All too frequently, however, the way we’ve been discussing them has led to more pain, frustration, and division within our community.
Rather than creating spaces to support each other while addressing problems, many of the discussions I’ve witnessed, both in person and in online forums, have allowed ideological and experiential differences to further divide us, leaving many students, myself included, feeling hurt, angry, or cynical. It’s important to note, though, that I have also heard many calls for kind and supportive dialogue. It is in that spirit that I share the following observations and requests.
Most importantly, be kind. No one needs mean-spiritedness, negativity, or fear-mongering, especially now. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to feel angry. Our expressions of anger should not come at the expense of others, though. We should be sensitive to the effects of our anger and do our best to moderate those effects.
Target ideas, not people. There is a big difference between telling someone they are doing or saying terrible things, and telling them they are a terrible person. While actions reflect on individuals, and you can and should protect yourself from people whose actions or beliefs seem harmful, responding to someone by attacking the individual isn’t the answer. Say how the beliefs being expressed affect you, say how they might affect others, explain why they are problematic, but don’t say, “You are an inherently shitty person.”
Recognize the context of the conversation you’re having and adapt. There are many, many conversations that can and should be had, but that doesn’t mean they are always appropriate. This is dependent on time, place, and with whom you are talking. There are conversations I have with a few close friends that I wouldn’t have with a large group in Usdan. There are conversations I have started, only to realize they were adversely affecting others and needed to wait. There are also times when calls to stop a certain conversation are attempts to silence that conversation. We must try to distinguish between silencing attempts and real need for kindness and understanding. A conversation needs to stop if it is hurting members of our community, particularly when those people have already been hurt.
Try not to make assumptions about the experiences of others. This applies both to people you know and are close to and to people you do not know. My close friend may have struggles I am unaware of, and my failure to recognize this can cause them pain. The person with whom I am arguing likely also has experiences I know nothing about. My assessment of others often translates to how I treat them, how much care I feel they “deserve” from me. Given how suspect these assessments are, especially when we assume others feel or hurt less than we do, it’s important to, at the very least, be somewhat critical about our own opinions of our peers.
Learn how to express your own wrongdoing. You aren’t always going to believe the “right” thing. Perhaps you didn’t have enough information, perhaps you’d never encountered a particular situation or perspective before, perhaps you just didn’t think. When this happens, and someone points it out to you, it’s so important to be able to say, “Shit, I’m so sorry, I fucked up.” It’s also important to check your impulse to explain why. While there are many reasons that you might accidentally hurt someone, and it is important to identify them, saying “I didn’t mean to offend you, I just didn’t know/didn’t think/was asking a question,” can often sound like a request for forgiveness. We do not always deserve forgiveness from people we harm or offend, especially in imbalanced relationships. To give excuses, particularly if your hope is to redeem yourself, often reads as a failure to recognize wrongdoing and a transferring of responsibility to those expected to “understand.”
A final note: Most of these reminders are most applicable to those of us in positions of privilege, whatever that privilege might be. Types of privilege include, but aren’t limited to: white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, physical ability-based privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, educational privilege, and privilege related to mental health. Some of what I ask is not fair or even possible for people without such privilege(s): there are times when it is not okay to ask someone to stop being angry, to stop talking, or to assume best intent, because to do so is to put the onus of promoting compassionate discourse on those who have been shown the least compassion. I speak not to them, but to anyone and everyone able to check how they engage with others.
My hope is that most of us believe in acknowledging our privilege: not as an apology, but as recognition of the ways in which our lives are made easier than–and sometimes at the expense of–the lives of others. I am aware that this is not a reality, even here; some of the disagreements I am responding to are a result of failures to acknowledge privilege. To anyone who can and will listen, then: please, explore and acknowledge your privilege. Consider the needs of your peers. Be kind.
ztevenz‘ earlier post: Reflections on the Recent Hospitalizations, Arrests and Wesleyan
Resources about privilege: Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege [abridged] Forms of privilege
Katherine Cross‘ great post on anger in online activism, and its follow up