Rethinking our rights and responsibilities as students as the new year dawns

Any time rights and responsibilities are mentioned in the same breath, I think of the musty yellow booklets we took home every year in Fairfax County Public Schools. It was called Student Rights & Responsibilities, or SR&R, and it laid out the ground rules for how not to get expelled. It was boring.

In the SR&R, responsibilities were things that we were required to do or not do, at the threat of punishment. Our laundry list of “responsibilities” included attending class and not abusing the computers, for example. I’d like to talk about a different sense of “responsibility,” though. When I say responsibility, I mean the sort of thing you can’t really achieve through making people sign a legal contract — the involvement, the engagement, and the trust that we invest in each other to make a community worth living in. To start off the discussion on something concrete, I’ll talk about how rights and responsibilities pertain to diversity and multicultural activism on campus.

When I hear a campus is “diverse,” I expect two things. One is the guarantee of safety for students who identify with groups that are traditionally disempowered. The other is to feel comfortable in this environment. It is pointless to strictly have the former without the latter. If I wanted a society that was utterly safe without regard for closeness or warmth, I’d choose to attend college in solitary confinement, which would guarantee equality under isolation, if nothing else.

Another way to say this is that diversity can be split into issues of rights (basic safety) and responsibility (the experience of community).

We’ve focused a lot on safety, and this isn’t bad. Our activists have made lots of progress in changing institutional policy. Any sort of official administrative positions or any American legal policies like Title IX and affirmative action are all results of rights-based activism. These are guarantees that certain institutions will act to protect minorities and mete out punishment when necessary. They are safety nets for the community in the event of major catastrophes, and they are very important safeguards.

We can’t lead too strongly with rights activism, though. There is no guarantee that strengthening our rights will automatically strengthen our responsibilities. It will certainly help us from being undercut when we do form a community, but excessive focus on rights can actually be detrimental to the underlying fabric of trust.

The trouble is that with such a small campus, it is too easy for the language of rights to bleed into more private spheres — and we end up expressing absolute political ideals when listening, give and take, and the intricacies of friendship may be better suited.

The risks and consequences of becoming overbearingly rights-oriented are meticulously illustrated by Mary Ann Glendon in her book “Rights Talk.” Since I don’t have the book on me, I’ll relay an excellent recap of the book from an Amazon.com reviewer (“JNeely”):

“Contemporary rights talk is separated both from the European tradition, and from the tradition of the founding fathers, not only in its simplicity, but also in its extreme individualism, absoluteness, insularity, and inarguability. American rights talk ignores the connections (logical and moral) that rights have with duties, it denies the social and communal aspects of people, and it rejects the need for rights to be limited according to various circumstances.”

The result of extreme rights talk is a suffocatingly political campus, one where “individualism, absoluteness, insularity, and inarguability” edge out their more sensitive counterparts — community, compromise, openness and humility.

I have heard someone describe liberalism as “erring on the side of compassion.” Applied to multicultural activism, “erring on the side of compassion” means a generosity and willingness to use the language of community and responsibility when it is unclear whether rights or responsibilities are the better path to take.

Many intricate social problems will work themselves out if people morally engage with their community. We will not only be safer, but happier, as well. This goes beyond diversity issues.

However, there certainly isn’t a magic button that causes people to want to engage more with the community. Glendon’s suggestion for how to go about increasing these intangible good qualities in communities is couched in promoting our “seedbeds of civic virtue.” These seedbeds include families, religious institutions, educational institutions, governments, the media and artistic institutions. By promoting these institutions, we can raise the overall health of a community. Is it as simple as that? It’s hard to say, especially on a campus as small as ours.

The single biggest thing we can do, in my personal assessment, is to connect our cultural life with the greater Philadelphia region. If our seedbed institutions are too small, and we can’t overcome our addiction to the “American rights dialect,” then we should create as many conduits between our culture and Philadelphia as possible.

After all, there is far more diversity in Philadelphia than at Swarthmore. It is a more practical, down-to-earth diversity, tried-and-tested in the streets of a real city. Maintain the idealism of Swarthmore College, but reinvigorate its stale political thought process with real-life experience.

Go to Philly on weekends. That’s the biggest thing we can do. Simply walk through the streets, and absorb the culture. Eat a cheesesteak, chill at a park. Don’t do anything. Meditate. Read a book. Simply absorbing the energy from Philadelphia and bringing it back to Swarthmore will do wonders for our cultural milieu. It’s hard to say how, exactly, but there is a vivacity and relevance to life in the city that is extremely powerful, and worth bearing in mind, if not outright adopting.

If I had to make columnist-type normative calls, I’d ask for more student events held in Philly, more community service groups (and community based learning classes) heading out to Philly, and more connections between our existing groups and their national or regional counterparts. We want to puncture the “Swat bubble,” and the rights talk that we use. The friction between our way of life and various Philly communities will provide us with grounding and real world experience. There are some hardcore Philly rats around campus, and if you ask around, I’m sure you can find some interesting tips about places to go.

I have a very specific take on this issue — that going to Philadelphia will make our community more friendly and diverse — but I don’t think that’s the only strategy, or even enough on its own, so I cede the floor.

Ultimately, I’d like to see greater community health result in more forgiveness for mistakes. There’s no community without a feeling that it is okay to take risks and make mistakes. A lot can be said for accepting the premise that other people can disagree with us, or even offend and hurt us, without losing an underlying sense of mutual respect. The flip side is that we also extend this faith to others, to trust that they will still respect us when we disagree, hurt, offend, and anger them in turn. It’s a sense of sportsmanship — an active desire to mend wounds caused by faux pas and cultural misunderstandings — because in the long run, these things don’t matter at all.

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