Mac Confessions is a weird sensation. It serves our community as the home to repressed and offensive not-PC comments about areas of privilege and difference. I have always written these off as authored by people who confuse being ignorant and lacking in compassion with “being cool.” Now, I have come to realize that this phenomenon is indicative of a much more pervasive issue at Macalester.
At Macalester we are proud of our liberalism. We view our liberalism as opposition to our demonized enemy: the conservative. In our collective hatred of the bigotry of conservatives we have compromised much of the integrity of our disdain. We have created an environment where each member must almost always live in fear of ignorance shaming: being publicly humiliated for displaying what is perceived as an inadequate understanding. I am not an ignorant person, but there are a lot of things that I am ignorant about. There is an important difference there: no one knows everything about anything.
Even in the sphere of privilege and oppression, reality remains subjective. I am a Jew. I know more than anyone else about Jews and Judaism as they are defined and resonate in my reality. No matter who you are, you know more than anyone else about Jews and Judaism as they are defined through the lens of your own reality. My understanding of Jews and Judaism are legitimated by the respect given to the trueness of my own reality. Our communal social contract is to rectify our collective realities in the way most tolerable to everyone.
The issue is the different values we assign to different realities. This is a good thing. Structural privilege and oppression are a huge and real problem in our society. Ipso facto certain realities are universally discriminated against and delegitimized. We must counter this failure of our society by assigning extra value to certain realities. This does not mean we have to delegitimize the realities of those who are not systematically devalued, but we do.
We have created codified rhetoric around ignorance to alienate certain people from participating in certain dialogues. Our response to privilege is to create a reciprocal value system in dialogue at Macalester. There is absolutely justice in this, which I support. My concern is that it lacks effectiveness. Change comes from the interaction between two realities. If a racist reality is not challenged, it will continue to be racist because that is the default lens through which it interprets empirical observations. To create change we must make the racist reality interact with non-racist, anti-racist and racialized realities. In the end, the fact that these lenses of interpretation are truer and more acute forces racism to be questioned and criticized.
Systems of interpretation based in privilege and oppression will always hide because they aren’t true. We must force them out of hiding. Unfortunately our de facto response of “showing a well intentioned person that they are ignorant and offensive” is a mediocre tool to do so. It has created a culture of privilege that is not necessarily less oppressive and prejudiced, but has adapted to use language deemed non-offensive. Our rhetoric around ignorance has not made the situation better, only less tangible, and therefore harder to confront. Stephan Hawking writes that “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Unfortunately, our shaming of any sign of ignorance has encouraged the development of illusory knowledge.
The result? Macalester. Home of liberal racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, etc: where we chronically refuse to take the human agency of underprivileged people seriously. We are not challenging the systems of persecution beyond the most superficial levels. We need to stop limiting who is allowed to speak based on their PC lexicon. It is like only talking about music with people who only listen to obscure and unknown bands because everyone else is mainstream. Is nothing free from your fetishization of Hipsterdom, Macalester? These conversations are too important to be exclusive. Our goal should be to make them mainstream; otherwise we are just preaching to the choir. We need to stop getting ego trips from knowing more about what terms and questions are offensive. Yes, these language infractions and people’s sensitivities deserve real attention; but not as much as the greater goal of functionally dismantling these systems of inequality, because it is vastly easier to stop at that first stage.
So let’s talk, Macalester. Let’s sit down and talk about how you only care about the Islam that comes from the mouths of extremists and not the rest of the 1.6 billion Muslims. When we do so, we invite everyone to participate. If someone says something “wrong,” let’s challenge the idea behind that infraction instead of just prohibiting language.
The offensive people on Mac Confessions are not writing to “be cool.” It is far cooler at Macalester to superficially judge and condemn those people. They are propelled to write these comments by two things. First is our community’s desire for a Rush Limbaugh-esque, easily definable enemy. There is a reason he has a talk show and doesn’t teach at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. The second is that the people who write those posts feel alienated from having actual conversations about the topics they are writing. They have genuine frustration that needs to be addressed in a better way. It isn’t the responsibility of every LGBTQQA person to talk with every liberal homophobe about their sexual orientation. However, if you are someone who cares about the issue, but feels detached from it enough to not be too injured by their inevitable homophobia, you should be the one going to talk to them. Having ignorance is inevitable, so let’s stop viewing it as a despicable shortcoming and discriminating every time we try to address it.