Opinion

A counter-counter-punch: A response to a friend

My good friend Richard Raya has his latest opinion piece up on the Mac Weekly website right now about the removals of Adinah Zilton from the FAC chair position and the KWOC barricade probations. It’s a response to two previous editorials on this topic from Jeff Garcia and Josh Weiner. As usual, it’s packed with exciting and well crafted rhetoric. It’s clearly the product of someone who deeply cares about the topic.

Richard writes:

“The nature of some of the responses to Sam Doten’s and Adinah Zilton’s articles, both in the paper and throughout the larger student body, as well as an article addressing the role of race in the trial of George Zimmerman, seem to suggest that matters of discipline and disobedience need only to boil down to the simple letters of the laws; that to insinuate that systems of law and order are visited upon different people in different ways is simply alarmist, superfluous and rude, and that we would all be better off if everyone was polite, palatable and kept their nose to the grindstone. It has been suggested that those individuals and groups who feel targeted are rowdy, self-obsessed exceptionalists who consider themselves above the rules that were designed and are policed fairly and equally for all.”

The problem I have with Richard’s editorial is that he essentially is conflating separate issues without diving into the specifics of each one. Those who criticized Sam Doten’s and Adinah Zilton’s editorials were not arguing that everyone should simply accept and comply with all laws and regulations, all the time. Nor were they suggesting that all laws and regulations are fair all the time. They were arguing that the application of specific Macalester College policies in these specific instances was both fair and predictable.

What we have to deal with in on-campus politics is down and dirty specifics, not broad generalizations.
Zilton and Doten have two essential arguments: a) KWOC members who participated in a blockade should not have been removed from MCSG and b) Zilton should not have been removed from the FAC chair position.

Now, I haven’t heard anybody argue that the policies and procedures applied in both of these situations were applied incorrectly. So I can only assume that critics either believe that a) these policies should not exist or b) these policies were enforced only selectively. Richard suggests as much, writing:

“…we do believe that we are better, and deserve more, than what unsatisfactory rules we already have. This applies to both Macalester and to most every other system of power as we know it…”

and:

“From my own personal experience, I cannot count the amount of times I saw white students receive no punishment, and sometimes even praise, for displaying the same type of energetic and challenging behavior that would land me and my Latino and Black friends in trouble”

So Richard suggests that college policy is both a) inherently unfair and ought to be changed and b) applied unfairly and/or enforced selectively.

The problem with the first argument (that the rules ought be changed) is that I have heard very little to support either contention. Consider first the idea of changing the rules. Are Zilton and KWOC asking us to change college policy? I haven’t seen a comprehensive or convincing argument for why the FAC Chair should not be required to maintain a C average, nor have I heard an argument for why students on disciplinary probation should be permitted to serve on MCSG.

The second argument is more or less impossible to prove or disprove, because we have almost no information about the outcomes of college disciplinary proceedings and no way to evaluate the “what ifs” of counterfactual scenarios. Are all people who fall below a C average placed on academic probation? There’s no way to know, because for obvious reasons the college doesn’t publicize this information. If Mac Young Americans for Liberty had barricaded the doors to Weyerhauser instead of KWOC, would they have been placed on disciplinary probation and removed from student leadership positions? My gut says yes, but any person’s answer to that question is dependent upon their pre-existing view of the college administration and there’s no way to know for sure.

My suspicion is that critics of the administration know that attacking specific policies or the implementation of those policies is a losing battle, because there’s no evidence to suggest the policies are unfair or that the policies have been applied selectively. They instead do as Richard does in this article – conflate Macalester College’s systems and procedures with those of governments and institutions in the world at large. By conflating the two and then pointing out the undeniable injustice in the wider world, they win the argument via obfuscation.

Richard, intentionally or not, does this in his article as well. Consider again the entirety of this sentence:

“I saw white students receive no punishment, and sometimes even praise, for displaying the same type of energetic and challenging behavior that would land me and my Latino and Black friends in trouble, as far back as elementary school.”

I have no doubt that a Latino like Richard has experienced discrimination in school, probably on numerous occasions, between elementary school and today. The key question, however, would be: have Macalester College’s rules been unfairly applied against him on the basis of his race? If so, we should talk about that specifically, and not what happened in elementary school. If they haven’t, then we’re not really talking about a problem with how Macalester College applies or formulates policy.

Richard also complains about the condescending tone of the critics. I will concede that Josh Weiner’s editorial often belabored the point of what rules are for. But the frustration that many campus moderates like myself feel stems from the fact that in the two cases at issue, college policies are and always were obvious. It is well known that if your GPA drops below a certain level you will be on academic probation. It was apparent to everyone that if you barricade a college building, you will suffer disciplinary consequences. College policy is both public and predictable, and it is fundamentally unfair and at some level absurd to knowingly violate it and then use the rallying cry of “social justice” to defend yourself.

Ultimately, as I have reiterated on numerous occasions in different places, Macalester is not a democratic state because we’re not building a society. The vast majority of rules and policies are in place not by majority rule but by administrative decree, because the mission of the privately funded organization is education. Of course, the institution only exists as long as students are willing participants. Those who vehemently disagree with college policies or how they apply retain the option of taking their tuition dollars to a different educational institution with different policies.

If they fundamentally are unable to grasp or unwilling to accept the consequences of knowingly violating the rules, perhaps it is best that they exercise this option.

October 18, 2013

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