Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Have you ever spent an afternoon whimsically gazing up at the sky and wondered: “Is whatever’s up there a racist?” If so, you can sleep easy tonight knowing that your wait is finally over. This Spring, you can take an actual course titled “Is God a White Supremacist?” because this is Swarthmore and of course you can. According to the course catalog, the class will “address religious theories justifying racial domination, engage in critical examination of the influence of religious thought both past and present on comparative global racisms, and transnational whiteness.” This only brings more questions to mind. What on earth is “transnational whiteness?” Just how racist is God? Is he like your kooky uncle who spends Thanksgiving dinner making snide remarks about “those people,” or is he more like someone who would vote for David Duke?
All kidding aside, while I’m certain the class will cover a variety of important topics, it’s title is an example of the sort of phenomenon that echo chambers inevitably produce. When we surround ourselves with people who agree with us, virtue signaling takes priority over substance. That’s why Breitbart runs articles like “Racist, Pro-Nazi Roots of Planned Parenthood Revealed” and Salon publishes headlines like “Richard Nixon: A Man Transfixed by Panda Sex.” It goes without saying that only hyper-partisans would take this sort of rhetoric seriously because it confirms what they already suspect.
What’s even more troublesome is when this type of extreme language becomes the norm, and straying from it becomes forbidden, as is becoming commonplace on college campuses. At UC Berkeley, innocuous sayings like “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” are now considered microaggressions, and at Liberty University, professors have gone so far as to delete sections about homosexuality from their psychology textbooks. Here at Swarthmore, language like “Is God a White Supremacist?” is so customary that it seems tame by Swat standards. People from every side of the spectrum should agree that the best way to combat ideas you disagree with is by confronting them directly, not suppressing them and wishing that they would go away.
Students often complain about the “Swat bubble,” and in my time as a tour guide, I was frequently asked about diversity of thought in our community. I always joked that we have a multitude of political ideologies: Democrats, Socialists, Democratic Socialists, Socialist Democrats, etc. I couldn’t be happier that Swarthmore serves as an incubator for new and sometimes controversial ideas, but there is a clear double standard when it comes to what we do and don’t tolerate. We can have classes with names like “Is God a White Supremacist?” without more than the occasional eye-roll, but when AEI on Campus hosts an event analyzing the rise of Donald Trump, their posters are taken down within hours for the crime of explaining Trump from a nonpartisan angle. We host workshops on “The Sexual Politics of Topping” without batting an eye, but when award-winning community projects such as the Human Library are brought to campus, they receive criticism for “marginalizing” people through the unspeakable evil of letting them speak about their experiences on their own terms. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be comfortable with any of those things, but rather that we should be open to critically examining every idea and event on campus regardless of where it originated.
Of course, the Swat bubble is just that, a bubble, so instead of being ready talk about the Trump campaign so we can challenge it, we are left with feelings of confusion and helplessness because these discussions aren’t always acceptable to have on campus. And instead of taking into account legitimate aspects of Trump’s appeal such as frustration with conventional politics and a fear of the economic and social changes that come with globalization, we ignore his supporters’ concerns and blast them as racists. These tactics work well if you’re concerned about virtue signaling, but they completely backfire if you’re actually trying to convince a Trump supporter not to vote for him. In this way, the Swat bubble hurts liberal students the most, because while conservatives leave Swarthmore having heard every counter-argument in the book, liberal students can graduate after four years with absolutely no experience winning people over to their side.
A final troubling aspect of this phenomenon is that students could soon be forced to take classes like “Is God a White Supremacist?” through the proposed social justice requirement. By passing a requirement that forces students at an already ideologically lopsided campus to take classes on social justice in order to graduate, we would effectively drive away every moderate and open-minded prospective student and ensure that Swarthmore becomes more akin to a pricey echo chamber than the elite college it should be. Instead of compelling students to subject themselves to mandatory ideological education, we should strive to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to challenge ideas without suppressing them, and promote them without proselytizing.
Featured image courtesy of the www.swarthmore.edu.
UPDATE: Nov 4, 10:51 a.m: Indirect references to social media comments were removed.