A Call for Good Faith

Jared Mayer, JHU:

For students on college campuses, these past few weeks have been incredibly trying. Students protested at both Yale and Mizzou (as well as other campuses), claiming that their respective administrations have failed to address systemic racism on both campuses. They claimed that school administrators and policies have failed to create safe spaces for students of color and other minorities on their respective campuses. Leaders of both the Yale and Mizzou protests have also issued lists of demands to their respective institutions. As the protests continue to appear on more college campuses and make headlines, the opposition to them continues to grow as well, citing a concern that the protesters’ demands threaten the existence of free speech on respective campuses.

And so starts the mudslinging. Some opponents of the protests have voiced disdain, if not disgust, for the protestors. Many articles, predominantly from conservative outlets, have disparaged the protestors, often referring to them as “coddled,” with one such article calling them both “special snowflakes” and “fascists.” In my judgment, snowflakes and fascists are an odd pairing. But it suggests a deeper, more disturbing problem to which this occurrence only serves as a symptom.

The protesters’ supporters have not kept their hands clean, either. One supporter has characterized her opponents’ free speech concerns as a “silencing tactic” against marginalized students on campus. Another claimed that students who disagreed with the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing criticism of police nationwide have “the inclination to believe in the righteousness and inherent goodness of white people while perpetually doubting and demeaning people of color.” Ironically, supporters of the protests have found some common ground with their opponents by besmirching the other side.

Although there have been examples to the contrary, we have seldom seen a recognition that the other side is acting in good faith. All too often the other side is seen as either the heirs of Stalin or Wallace, opponents of freedom or equality. We are clearly right and they are wrong; we are the bulwarks for truth, they are the enemies of reason. Seldom is there a handshake between the opposing parties.

My point is not to say, like Nicholas Kristof has, that both sides are correct. I agree with that, but my point is different. It speaks to the heart of what campus activism and debate ought to be. It ought to be the coming together of different parties, when each side drops its respective dismissiveness and sees the other as, in fact, not the other, but the same.

This is, to be sure, incredibly difficult. It requires me to sit before my peers and to listen. Silently. Patiently. Attentively. And I will have to listen not only to arguments and reasons, but to the anger that arises from within them – an anger that has stemmed from pejorative experiences through which they emerged, but I have not. Then it will be my turn. I will have the chance to explain my concurrences, my reservations, and my agnosticisms. I can only hope that they will extend me the same courtesy.

Key to this process is to assume, as I must as well, that we are all acting in good faith. And good faith means rejecting the notion that our opposing colleagues merely aim to collect power. To be sure, some may simply feel that their hegemonic influence on campus is being threatened, if not coming to a close. I won’t deny the existence of those folks. But to broaden that assumption to the opposing side entire is to poison the wells. Assuming the worst begets claiming of opponents the worst, and claiming of opponents the worst begets acting the worst. We may continue to pursue this pernicious path, but it will only be a matter of time before we come to realize the degree and amount of malice we left in our wake.

Few of us want to see a campus without freedom, and similarly few of us wish to see a campus devoid of true equality for all students. Nearly all of us want the best campus possible. And I would be naïve to think that, with an assumption of good faith, all of our differences would be cast aside. That’s nonsense. But perhaps before we walk away grumbling, furious that – once more, despite our points of agreement – the opposing side has failed to see things the correct way, we can shake hands. We can engage in a symbolic act of unity, of mutual understanding, and perhaps in due time, of healing.

Some may think that what I have written here is pithy, even platitudinous. Nothing here advances the debate, and nothing here takes a particular side. It even calls for reflection and reorientation at a time when passionate people vigorously pursue virtuous ends. But such abstraction, one that charges us to fairly analyze the motives and intentions of the supposed “other,” will do us a world of good. It might make us realize that the “other” is indeed one of us and perhaps lead us to genuine, constructive discussion. This might be impossible to do right now. Maybe we can start by simply shaking hands.

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