Swarthmore’s frequent social justice campaigns — pro-divestment, pro-childcare, anti-fraternity, anti-Zoellick, and so on — make us a hotspot for controversy and, yes, and decidedly leftist socio-political culture. I appreciate that culture. I approach it as someone sympathetic to the cause. Yet I am strangely dissatisfied with the way that Swarthmore’s social justice movements manifest within our campus discourse.
I want to be clear: I am not criticizing those who, frustrated and in private conversation, lash out at oppressive social groups or structures, nor am I criticizing those who engage in a spirited debate about contentious issues. I do want to speak to those who go to online comments sections and anonymously post hateful insults; to the people who find an inoffensive Internet post merely questioning the most extreme version of an argument, and repost it on Facebook with a questioner’s intelligence or humanity; and particularly to the people who would defend such attacks on the ground that they come from a position that is underprivileged and oppose a status quo position that wields institutional power.
Our opposition to institutional oppression does not entitle us to be mean-spirited towards those who disagree. Remember that many people expressing doubts are not consciously oppressing anyone. They — we — often cannot fully appreciate the harmfulness of oppressive structures until we are confronted with their effects. Dissenters are not guilty of some gross offense merely because the conditions of their birth have hitherto blinded them to their positions of privilege. Their moral culpability in oppressive structures is limited to their response upon discovering them. Social justice advocates owe it to their targets to treat them with the same empathy we demand for the oppressed. On a practical level, opponents’ initial recalcitrance against criticisms can often be overcome by appeals to empathy, but it will only be entrenched and embittered by personal derision and belittlement.
But let us suppose that social activists are entitled to publicly insult their opponents, so long as they do so in opposition to institutional power. Then we still have a major problem: at Swarthmore, we liberals are the ones with localized cultural and institutional power behind us. So if our concern is the suppression of minority views and the oppression of their ability to speak and act freely, then we need to do some serious self-reflection and question whether Swarthmore is a place where conservatives (or even people who would be considered mere moderates in broader society) can feel welcome. If not, then we’re failing at our mission of social justice because we’ve merely replicated oppressive power dynamics along non-conventional lines.
Presumably a social justice advocate dislikes oppressive structures as such. While the size, scope, or duration of those structures may make them more or less pernicious — e.g., misogyny is more common and more broadly entrenched than Swarthmore’s anti-conservatism — that is insufficient justification for supporting a newer, smaller, or narrower oppressive structure. Consider: a dictatorship that denies some people their political rights is not good merely because it prevents the rise of some potential dictatorship that would deny everyone their political rights. Even though it is the lesser of two evils, we would still say that we should support, as far as possible, a government that grants everyone basic rights protections. Likewise, even if Swarthmore’s anti-conservatism helps to crowd out a more pernicious set of oppressive norms, we should still insist that our rival system be as good as we can possibly make it. Insofar as the culture we inculcate is a product of our individual decisions, each of us is in a position not just to demand, but also to help create a more open and welcoming environment.
We don’t have to adopt conservative views to have a civil discourse with conservative students, and we don’t have to give up the cause of social justice to stop launching ad hominem attacks against those who disagree with us. Engagement is important — whether we will it or not, conventional oppressors are not going away. It’s better to convert than to alienate them, not only because that wins more allies, but also because radical alienation from one another is exactly what we are trying to avoid. While we should be carefully attuned to the vestiges of long-standing oppressive regimes, we ought not lose sight of the importance of being decent, civil human beings – towards everyone. I think that’s an attitude that even the most ardent social justice advocate could support.
Griffin Olmstead ’15