11 November 2015

Substitution in Thinking about Activists

There is something so very wrong when college students are subject to racial epithets and ugly vandalism and nothing is done, as has happened at Missouri State University. Now, because the football team decided to strike, there are at least some administrative changes in the offing, but there is still not much clarity around how the racist behavior at the root of current events will be addressed. 

And when the protesting students make (perhaps) a misjudgment (the refusal to tolerate a media photographer at their tent city on campus), the world rushes to condemn them.

As if pushing one reporter away outweighs addressing any harm the students have suffered and will suffer due to entrenched racism in the university community.

I suppose it is because racism makes us so uncomfortable. We much prefer to believe it doesn’t exist, or if it does, then it isn’t our responsibility to fix. 

The other night I was glued to Twitter, reading a conversation between Roxane Gay (who recently spoke at the Humanities Festival here in Chicago) her friend, sociologist Dr. Tressie Cottom, and David Simon, the former journalist who created the great television series The Wire and Treme. David Simon was arguing for absolute freedom of the press, criticizing the protestors for barring access to photographer Tim Tai. Gay and Cottom were making a more nuanced argument, accounting for the protesters’ wariness of media and their desire to foster a safe space.

What stunned me most was how much Twitter energy was going into arguing over this incident—one viral video. This was more worth discussing than how we fix the real problems that those protesters are facing? Tim Tai himself tweeted, “Just want to reiterate that while I think we need to talk about the 1st Am issues from today, the larger story is not about that.

Yet The Twitter conversation went on! I was deeply disappointed in David Simon, although this discussion has been proposed as an example of a useful debate on Twitter.

Can we have multiple conversations (e.g., about racism and about the importance of the first amendment)? It seems like we ought to be able to. But when one conversation is difficult, we tend to supplant the difficult conversation with the easier one. And if the easier one involves switching blame to the victims we might be complicit in harming, so much the better.

We not only get to avoid the difficult conversation, but we get to weasel out of our responsibility to fix the root problem. It’s like focusing on a rape victim’s tacky fashion sense, or—even more typically—focusing on the shoplifting activity of an unarmed teen killed by police.

I don’t know what stops this. Per Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow), answering an easier question when we’re asked a hard one is something we just do. Recognizing that we do it is one step forward, but only the first.

P.S. Good article by Roxane Gay on student activism here.

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