Approaching Social Justice with Love and Reason

“Achilles glared at him and answered, “Fool prate not to me about covenants. There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other out and out and through. Therefore there can be no understanding between you and me, nor may there be any covenants between us, till one or the other shall fall…you shall now pay me in full for the grief you have caused me on account of my comrades whom you have killed in battle.””
-Homer, The Iliad
 
 
“I got love for my brother
But we can never go nowhere unless
we share with each other
We gotta start making changes
Learn to see me as a brother instead
of two distant strangers”
-Tupac, Changes
I have been discriminated against in every country I’ve lived in, from Japan to Canada, America, and Argentina. This week, a cashier-lady in the electronics store performed Kung-Fu while screeching Chinese greetings. Evidently, she thought it was funny. “I’m Japanese,” I said, “and nihau is Chinese. We say konnichiwa.” She didn’t care, and proceeded through her repertoire of racist jokes while I exited the store humiliated. When I’m treated this way, a homicidal rage usurps my brain, and then it subsides, leaving space for a rational response. Now, racism is plain shitty, but I know that there is nothing shameful about being Asian, and this feeling makes me impervious to these comments. From the Stoics I learned that the only things that affect me are the ones I allow. What liberating and powerful knowledge: “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.” I can ignore racist comments, and instead focus on what I want to accomplish. James Baldwin understood that “my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred carried in my own heart.” To clarify, the purpose of releasing hatred is not to become apathetic and disengage from minority issues in America, but to favor constructive, rational approaches so that progress can be made.
Many students ignore the issues we want redressed at Colby; some supporters fear contributing because they expect reprisal for their critical stance. Racism exists in America because white people don’t understand what it’s like to be a minority. To see how hard it is to empathize, look at Jane Elliott’s Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes experiment. Here, the majority of students simply don’t understand minority experiences; yet we treat anybody with critical opinions as racists, as if our sense of injustice allows this. How else could we justify their treatment? Ad hominem attacks are never permissible against fellow students, but they are allowed against bigots. We can create mutual trust and perspective-changing conversation but we can’t be scared of where it will lead. The ego has a way of shutting down all conversation that might show a person’s ignorance. As soon as valid points are spoken that may contradict our views, we lose control and resort to name-calling: check your privilege, triggers, and safe spaces are all tools to shut down conversation. We dig deeper into a dogmatic position without thinking. Its so much easier to follow the crowd and never question our own ideas. However, this does not lead to truth or progress, simply a continuation of the divisive status quo. Furthermore, these students paid money to be here in the hope that they too could learn and live fruitful lives after graduation. Please don’t alienate all these nice students who support our aims, but merely question our tactics.
In fact, they can be a valuable part of a solution. Most students are pluralists and humanists: they desire a liberal and equal society that protects the individuals’ rights. When they offer reason-based criticism of our tactics, they earnestly ask for a healthy atmosphere where they can express themselves without fear of slander. This right is based on the assumption that each person has an inviolable right to liberty and freedom of speech. Especially in college, where we are discovering new ideas and values, we must be able to discuss, debate, and interrogate them to question the assumptions behind ideas, and only then can we truly know the value or error of these positions. The student body has been robbed of this right; nowadays, all honest conversations occur between close friends; we cannot trust everybody with our ideas anymore.
Having said that, there are real problems at Colby and in society. Your race determines how you are treated, with social and economic benefits favoring those who are white and male. The situation is unfair but it doesn’t always have to be this way. I hope that we can all play a part in this vision so eloquently written in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” We have been inching, sweating, fighting our way there since the founding of this republic, and for some, progress is not rapid enough. But patience, my friends, we will get there and the velocity of our trajectory will be determined by our actions, whether they be hotheaded and irrational, or pragmatic and bold. Are we in the social justice movement for instant gratification, or can we see ten, fifty years ahead? President Obama enjoys quoting Martin Luther King, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” This seems true in the history of all nations. We began race relations in the United States with the attempted genocide of native Indians and the introduction of African people for slavery. Slave owners stole these peoples’ names, cut them off from their history, and deprived them of their liberty. A lynching of a black man used to be an event, where white people gathered in their Sunday best, enjoying a barbecue alongside a murder.
What we see today, even with the major progress made in the Civil Rights Movement, is a continuation of these problems; the criminal justice system is a heinous form of institutionalized racism; the lack of economic opportunity for Black, Latino, and Asian Americans perpetuates the cycle of poverty; the police seem intent on killing young black men now that crack use has declined; LGBTQ people still feel incredible stigma: “41% of transgender people in the U.S. attempt suicide at some point in their lives, a whopping 9 times the national average.” Imagine what they must go through because society is too closed minded to accept who they are. Yet progress has been made. This is the most pluralistic, open society in history. We live with the hope that tomorrow will be a brighter day for everyone.
Equality through nonviolent resistance is a grand human endeavor; it arises from the heroic tradition of civil rights marches. We stand upon the shoulders of giants: Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. I wonder what they would think of us today. In the pursuit of equality, we have forsaken the principles that got us here and become the bullies we rebelled against. A shameful terror envelops Colby and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” We have destroyed all possibility of healthy debate on campus. There exists so much distrust on every side. This “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude will get us nowhere. Compromise is not weakness, nor is allowing dissenting opinions on campus. Nietzsche says, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
There is a philosophy of universal brotherhood arising out of the Civil Rights Tradition of Martin Luther King, and another drastically different philosophy of “any means necessary” within the tradition of Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. One flourishes through man’s humanity, while the other feeds on divisiveness and hate; which philosophy do we choose in the coming year?