“Indulgence for the royalists, cry certain men, mercy for the villains! No! mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak, mercy for the unfortunate, mercy for humanity.” – Maximillien Robespierre
When I went back home for Winter Break, I found myself feeling repeatedly frustrated while having casual conversations with friends and family. Whenever I was trying to say something, it seemed like someone would interrupt me and say something tangentially related. I tried to contain these feelings but after someone interrupted me to start an entirely new conversation I confronted the interruptor. Only to be met with blank stares by the people who saw me grow up or grew up alongside me. I later realized that in the six months in which I had lived in America I’d forgotten that unlike here, where interrupting someone while they’re talking is an egregious social crime, back home this was a perfectly natural norm. Of course, I have the right to prefer the social norms of other cultures over my own, regardless of how much it hurts my pride and disappoints my mother. What I did not have the right to do, however, was to cast judgment on how much the people I’m talking to value what I’m saying based on a minor difference of what is and is not acceptable conduct in casual conversations. You can’t remove what counts as “conversational justice”, or opinions on what is and is not justifiable conduct, from the norms that have been socially instilled in people from birth. It is within these norms that we navigate these questions, and the similarities between cultural codes of conduct is what allows us to question someone’s actions or intentions across continental divides.
“If – a more conceivable possibility – the Germans had succeeded in exterminating their Slav neighbours, as the Anglo-Saxons in North America succeeded in exterminating the Indians, the effect would have been what it has been on the Americans: the Germans would have become advocates of brotherly love and international reconciliation.” – A.J.P Taylor
It is certainly ironic to anyone who is familiar with the crimes committed both beyond and within their borders by the British Empire and the United States that the terms Pax Britannica and Pax Americana are used to describe their respective periods of global military, political and economic hegemony. But it is not a historical accident that you can use these terms with a straight face but would be laughed out of a PoliSci class if you spoke of a Pax Haitiana or a Pax Zimbabweana. It is precisely the violent processes of indigenous dispossession, colonization, political control of foreign lands, and the notorious political interventions in those which allows its defenders to proclaim that the world was or is as peaceful as ever. Whenever these violent processes are contested, it is taken to be an attack on the peace which is only really afforded to those who lived or live within the borders of England and the United States, and not even all of those within those borders. In an analogous logic, the fact that the organizers of Reedies against Racism were harassed on and offline by white supremacists, were J-Boarded, had their names and mail stop numbers leaked to white supremacists by Reedies, endured racist and homophobic slurs being grafitti’d across campus, had their graduation dates delayed, were publicly likened to white supremacists by Reed’s then-president, branded as “bullies” and anti-intellectuals by national media, and subjected to a flurry of other forms of harassment, disrespect, and humiliation, is not made much of.
Yet: when students on campus react negatively to professors being caught on camera making racist and xenophobic comments to fast food workers, when students react negatively to professors and students saying microaggressions in conferences, when students react negatively to racist stereotypes being perpetuated in lectures, then the question of how to treat perpetrators justly and fairly, on how to have a conversation, on what are and are not the limits of what actions are morally permissible to take against those we disagree with, finally comes up. It’s not that I believe that people who make moral errors do not have the right to being treated fairly, or that conversations should not be had. In fact, I think we should not have it any other way. Nor do I condone harassment of any kind of on Reed’s campus. But there’s a clear hypocrisy in the fact that the question of what disturbs the peace, of what goes against norms of what counts as acceptable conduct, only seems to come up for some when the peace that is being disturbed is not the peace of students of color, of immigrant students, or in the original example of British Kenya or Libya.
“I’ve never seen a hero like me in a sci-fi
So I wonder if your needs are even meant for me
I wonder if you think that I could ever raise you up
I wonder if you think that I could ever help you fly
Never seen a hero like me in a sci-fi
But I’d save a life if I thought it belonged to you
Mary Magdalene would never let her loved ones down” – FKA Twigs
Implicit in this hypocrisy is that the peace of students of color and immigrants at Reed, or the British subjects in the colonies, is somehow in contradiction with the peace of white American students and faculty, or of the English subjects of the British Empire. Of course, it is well known that unjust systems never happen by accident, that they are usually built to benefit someone or another, and that those who it benefits can feel as if opposition to it or its dismantling is an injustice to them, because it threatens their privilege or power. But true justice, while only articulable within certain norms, is notoriously blind, and therefore only benefits those who have proven themselves worthy. There is no need to worry over accountability when decolonizing Africa, or addressing problematic patterns of behavior in Reed’s campus, because addressing the needs of students of color, or allowing Kenyans to rule themselves, simply is accountability. These acts are in themselves just, and insofar as it dispossesses anyone of their freedom to act, it is because whatever actions they felt they had the right to do, was in fact infringing on their own accountability to others. If you feel your actions are defensible, or you feel you have the right to redemption, then certainly it is better for you to be judged by those who have themselves been unfairly judged than those who have not been held accountable for their actions. That is, unless you have some reason to believe you are above the need to justify your conduct to others. Which is pretty straightforwardly a defense of privilege.
“Over the past few days, I have heard from many of you, particularly members of our community who identify as immigrants and people of color, that you do not feel safe here. This is deeply troubling and deserves the full force of our community in addressing it.” – President Audrey Bilger
When we ask how we can act more justly at Reed, how Reed can be a more just college, if done in good faith, leads inevitably to making sure that the aggrieved parties in whatever dispute have the same opportunities to flourish as others. When we ask “Whose Justice?” – we are not talking about what counts as just in their respective cultures, which will surely vary, but rather their specific situation within the Reed community. Yet it is simultaneously everyone’s, since everyone gains from attending an equitable and peaceful (for all!) institution, and likewise they also have a guarantee that, when they are themselves mistreated, they will also be able to get the justice they deserve. And at this moment, there are too many at Reed who have been treated unfairly.
“But activists calling themselves Reedies Against Racism denounced [Hum 110] as “oppressive” and “Caucasoid,” claiming too many of the writers were white men. You know, like that lame Aristotle dude.” – The Washington Post’s Editorial Board
An interesting aspect of the 2016-17 Hum 110 controversy is how those in favor of the curriculum change were branded as anti-intellectuals only concerned with the practical relevance of the topic to the lived experiences of minority students and/or hot-button cultural issues at the expense of the intellectual merit Reed’s educational mission is meant to be about. Indeed, there was widespread pushback in the media when Reed announced the changes that most current Reed students have experienced firsthand. Those charges evoke memories of Reed Professor Martin Levich’s attacks on the BSU’s demands for a Black Studies Center at Reed in the late 60s. In a 1969 essay entitled “What is the Impact of the Social Revolution on Humanistic Studies?”, he criticized a tendency he noticed “on the lips of many of our students”, which he called the “ideology of relevance.” The idea behind it is that the humanities are useful insofar as they serve to inform how we advance social causes, and therefore it is merely instrumental to more noble causes, with a lesser (or none at all) intrinsic worth. In the context of the Black Studies debate, however, the implied presupposition seems to be that the students protesting for the Center could not have possibly believed that the subject matter had equivalent intrinsic worth with what was then studied in the college. This silent presupposition later became vocal and personal when Levich said of the director of the BSC William McClendon “I think [he] would have to be agreed to be academically incompetent”.
The presupposition persisted until 2017. And it still exists in some corners of Reed, even if less vocally than before, to this day. When professors simply admit defeat in teaching the second semester of Hum 110, or clearly signal a lack of interest or connection the material (as if 1920’s Harlem was farther from the reality of White Americans than 2000BC Thebes); when Latinx students are typecast into spokespeople for their culture against their will during the Mexico City unit or Black students for the Harlem Renaissance one; when students of color and international students are othered and made to feel uncomfortable in conference discussions; the message is always clear and always the same, whether it is intentional or not: “your culture does not belong in what I think should be studied at Reed, you don’t belong in who I think should study at Reed.”
“No one should have to pass someone else’s ideological purity test to be allowed to speak. University life — along with civic life — dies without the free exchange of ideas.” – Professor Lucía Martínez Valdivia
The “ideological purity test” is particularly cruel when, by virtue of where you were born or the color of your skin, you are not allowed to pass. Let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that somehow addressing these issues threatens “academic freedom” in the slightest, as if there is anything but prejudice that could possibly motivate someone into assuming Du Bois is not worthy of as serious of study by Reed’s freshmen as Aristophanes. This logic in fact does constrain the free exchange of ideas, because when immigrant students and particularly students of color are deprived of the same treatment as other students, they are forced into having a worse educational experience than their peers. And if they speak up on these issues, they risk being ostracized by faculty they need to have close relationships with in order to graduate from Reed, or other students they have to work closely with and interact with daily inside and outside of conferences. In short, the full participation in university life necessary for a Reed education is at stake. Not only that, but even non-immigrant non-POC students are being deprived of the opportunity to have the Humanities 110 experience they are entitled to, and the ruthless pursuit of knowledge that a liberal arts education is supposed to be about. Therefore, when we ask “Which Rationality?”, we should keep in mind that we need to reassess our current failures in order to ensure that immigrant students and students of color can fully participate in Reed’s collective pursuit of knowledge, and that all students stand to gain from their participation.
“We became entrapped, as a result, in Bantustan enclaves labelled “ethnic” and “gender” and/or “minority studies.” These enclaves then functioned (…) to exempt English Departments from having to alter their existing definition of American literature.” – Sylvia Wynter
A “campus racial crisis” is not simply when students speak up about these issues. Or take over Eliot Hall. It’s not even just when a professor harasses people of color in public. The crisis has been here, and is here, and will outlast all of us if the Reed community doesn’t take opportunities like this to listen to the significant grievances among the student body, faculty and staff (although I’ve largely focused on the student body in this text) and decides to take serious action in ameliorating these problems. Reed College was perhaps too naïve to assume that it could without significant institutional correction carry on the job of fulfilling its ideals of free and intense intellectual inquiry by diversifying its curriculum and student body when these ideals were constructed to make students internalize ideals that are inherently exclusionary of non-whites and non-Americans. What is needed is not simply adding more perspectives, more diversity offices and centers (although these can be part of it), and certainly not more “Bantustans” and oral blacklists of who on campus will or will not treat you well; but a cultural paradigm shift. The fact Reed admin feels the need to add endless epicycles of “conversations” and “committees” and new job titles isn’t a sign of a problem well addressed but rather living proof that the problem has not been truly addressed. Safe spaces are a reaction to feeling unsafe and treating them as acceptable in the context of anything other than a last resort is barbaric. The fact that Reed needs more of what I listed above, and the probable impending partial delivery of those things by administration, shouldn’t be celebrated but treated as a tragic necessity. The fact that Reed’s admin is making a big show of sitting down and listening is a sign that it could not hear us before. We should take this opportunity but not celebrate it or treat it as an ideal going forward. We already have better ones in mind.
“Furthermore, two-thirds of the world is non-white; yet their cultures, contributions and present circumstances are virtually ignored. It is not possible to deal effectively and fairly with your non-white neighbors if you haven’t been exposed to their intellectual and spiritual heritages. Unless Reed begins to offer some alternatives to education of western civilization, western ideals, etc. by white professors, you will receive not an education, but an indoctrination.” – Jeffrey Browne