Friday, November 27, 2015

Randall Kennedy is Not Alarmed or Hurt

Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy:
In a grand corridor of Harvard Law School, framed professors’ photographs hang on a wall. A week ago, someone put slivers of black tape over the faces of most of the African-American professors. I am one of those whose photograph was marked.

Last Thursday, on my way to teach contracts, I received an email from a student who alerted me to the defacement. I saw the taped photos, including my own, right before class. Since then I have been asked repeatedly how I feel about having been targeted by what some deem to be a racial hate crime. Questioners often seem to assume that I should feel deeply alarmed and hurt. I don’t.

The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined. Perhaps the defacer is part of the law school community. But maybe not. Perhaps the defacer is white. But maybe not. Perhaps the taping is meant to convey anti-black contempt or hatred for the African-American professors. But maybe it was meant to protest the perceived marginalization of black professors, or was a hoax meant to look like a racial insult in order to provoke a crisis, or was a rebuke to those who have recently been taping over the law school’s seal, which memorializes a family of slaveholders from colonial times. Some observers, bristling with certainty, insist that the message conveyed by the taping of the photographs is obvious. To me it is puzzling.

Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. Substantial numbers of onlookers believe that this episode is by no means isolated, that it offers a revealing glimpse into the soul of Harvard Law School.

They believe that the defacement is but an outcropping of shrouded, denied, but pervasive bigotry abetted by an unwillingness to redress subtle vestiges of historical racial injustice. The aggrievement felt by substantial numbers of smart, knowledgeable and capable students is evident. Their accusations warrant close examination and may well justify further reforms. There are exceedingly few, if any, major institutions in America that can be presumed to be racism free.

Activists who are demanding that universities do more to advance racial justice ought to be encouraged by what has transpired in recent weeks. On account of their interventions, difficult but earnest and probing conversations have blossomed. At Harvard, the dozen or so strips of black tape that prompted the crisis have been replaced by hundreds of brightly colored stickers expressing respect and appreciation, and rejecting bigotry.
Kennedy connects how people respond to possibly racist incidents to one of my themes: in a world with so many messages being broadcast, people find and focus on the ones they want to hear. There is a lot of racism in the world, so if that is your focus you will keep finding it. But why focus on it? Instead of the one person who put up black tape, why not focus on the hundreds who protested against it?

Kennedy is concerned about the response of some students:
I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved. . . . Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.

In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization. A colleague of mine whose portrait was taped over exhibited the right spirit when he jauntily declared that it would take far more than tape to slow him down.
The world is not and will never be perfect. The world will hurt you. Certainly you should do what you can, when you can, to make it a better place. But the right response to any particular act of meanness is not to cry over it, but to defy the haters and keep moving on.

7 comments:

David said...

I too liked Kennedy's essay very much, but I think there's a difference between the particular incident he focuses on and "any" incident of meanness. As he makes clear, the origin and meaning of the black-tape incident were mysteries with many possible answers and very few clues. And he's right, some students and others were too fragile and too determined to see in the black tape incident a racist insult that matters. But *some* of the incidents that protesters are complaining about around the country are ugly and unmistakable, and some are threatening, and some part of patterns. Ignoring and moving on is not the answer to any and all incidents.

This discussion reminds me of one we had long ago about some comments James Scott made about anarchists and the civil rights movement, to the effect that the respectable movement needed the energy of anarchists and black power types. Maybe this movement needs the rage of the oversensitive. Of course, I don't much like anarchists, and you don't seem to respect the oversensitive. But perhaps these are only matters of taste, and not important? The oversensitive may go too far, but if they help make a world where frats stop having parties where everyone's invited but black girls, so much the better, no?

G. Verloren said...

"Kennedy connects how people respond to possibly racist incidents to one of my themes: in a world with so many messages being broadcast, people find and focus on the ones they want to hear."

When I was in college, I decided on a whim to tape up a few independent comic strips I liked in a well trafficked hallway of the philosophy department. The strips were on the topic of human nature and organized religion, and I found them rather clever and thought provoking, and certainly didn't consider them offensive or mean spirited.

On returning to classes after the weekend, I learned that much of the school was in an uproar about the strips, believing them to be a hostile attack on the Christian community of the school (although the strips didn't single out any one religion). It made the front page of the campus newspaper, spawned a series of sullen meetings between faculty and students, and it even briefly effected a change in campus security patrols to cover the hallway in question. I was suddenly quite glad I had put them up anonymously.

Later in the week I discussed the matter with my philosophy professor, a retired Christian pastor and religious scholar whose specialties were the Christian New Testament and the Buddhist Sutras. He shared my view that the overall reaction to the strips was fairly absurd from a logical standpoint, but he joked that feeling certain about something without sufficient proof was the foundation of all true faith, and therefor jumping to conclusions could be seen as an act of devotion.

There's a saying I picked up somewhere that I rather like and hold to be quite true: "We suspect of others what we know of ourselves". I unthinkingly expected everyone else to be pleasantly amused by the strips I shared, because -I- was pleasantly amused by them. And I think many people assumed the comics to be an attack on their religion because they themselves were the sort of people who might go out of their way to intolerantly attack someone else's religion.

John said...

David: You may be right that to be successful any movement needs the energetic obsession of a core group, some of whose beliefs are liable to be dubious, and that in this case the core group is the easily offended. And you are right that as a matter of taste and temperment I dislike the easily offended. I have been trying to find the good in these uprisings; for example I posted about a group that had tried to formulate a clear legislative program for the Black Lives Matter movement. In the case of these student blow-ups, I am having a hard time finding anything solid to like and hold on to. Every time students formulate a positive plan, they go in directions I dislike and distrust: mandatory sensitivity training, minority studies requirements, monitoring of professors to make sure they never commit micro-aggressions, unleashing the campus disciplinary apparatus against students who put up All Lives Matter posters. If anyone can point me in the direction of a grown-up, responsible, reasonable plan for making universities more welcoming places for female and minority students, I would appreciate it.

Thinking over some of the essays that have come from older black professors, I wonder if maybe they are a little miffed that the students aren't giving them much credit for the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The language of some protesters seems to me more appropriate for the America of 1965 than today, and maybe some professors feel that the actual progress they fought for ought to get more attention.

John said...

G: That's a fascinating story. I think it is worth spending a little time, whenever something deemed offensive shows up on a wall, what the person who put it there may have been thinking. I am sure that my 19-year-old self would have delighted to find anti-religion cartoons taped up in a hallway, and regarded an offended reaction from Christians as absurd. I don't think I was evil, just a thoughtless 19-year-old.

David said...

John: Do you care at all about some of the egregious insults out there? I find it hard to ignore those, whereas I find it easy to ignore some of the demands you mention, which to me don't seem terribly important.

John said...

What do you mean, care about egregious insults? I wish they had not been made. I think students who paint swastikas on college walls should be expelled; I think people who make online threats of physical violence should be prosecuted under the relevant laws. But I greatly fear the apparatus of a state that could reach into people's houses and punish the ones with improper thoughts.

I believe as much as I believe anything that people have a right to their thoughts, and that no idea in human history was worse than the inquisition, religious or secular, that punishes people for having the wrong beliefs. I have children who have spent much time in the sorts of online places where social justice warriors rule, and in their tones I hear the inquisition. They do not believe that anyone has a right to thoughts they disagree with. Sometimes I think, ok, they're 17, whatever. But sometimes they chill me to the bone. It has happened dozens of times in America that some college entity invites a speaker, say a conservative Catholic who disapproves of transexuality and thinks it is ungodly, and the sjws rise up and ban him from the campus because, they say, just the presence on campus of a person with such beliefs is an assault on them. I think that is a terrible, horrible thing, far worse than any number of anonymous angry posts or shouted insults in the dark.

If freedom does not mean the right to hold and advocate for beliefs that the majority finds offensive, it means nothing. If we cannot get along in a civil way with people who hold beliefs we find abhorrent, democracy will fail.

My second son has been verbally abused in ways I find shocking for holding beliefs that would in my generation have been considered liberal; the insults hurled at him -- bigot, racist, homophobe, asshole, etc. -- seem to me ten times worse than anything he said himself. His old group of high school friends splintered over these issues and unfriended each other, even though all are Democrats and supporters of gay rights. Fredrik de Boer, a very liberal blogger I cite here sometimes, has seen much of the same thing and it worries him, too. Any world in which to write a single sentence mildly out of step with the majority opinion leads to verbal abuse is not a world I want any part of.

I think this is especially important at a university because to me being educated means being exposed to horrible ideas. Is it offensive to teach Aristotle's defense of slavery, or his explanation of the inferiority of women? Is it offensive to try to explain the beliefs of the secessionists of 1861? What about Lenin's defense of political violence, or his attacks on peasants and the middle class? How can we educate people who regard the very existence of such ideas as an assault on their identities?

As to what I can and cannot ignore, well, I work in a world where overt racism or sexism would be shocking. I never see it and don't worry about it. But I worry all the time that in writing about blacks or Indians I might say something that somebody would find offensive. I read a lot about contemporary Indian reservation politics but I have ever blogged about it because I don't dare.

I do not believe we can eradicate racism. The most we can do is force it underground, and on college campuses at least this has largely been achieved. Anonymous racist posts and so on cannot really be prevented by any government I could support. The proper response to such things is to ignore them if possible and denounce them if not. If the very existence of a handful of racists or sexists pigs in the world is going to make you miserable, you are not likely to ever be happy.

David said...

I would agree with what you say, which is very well and passionately expressed. For myself, for better or worse, your first paragraph is very important as a caveat. For some reason, in order to give my trust on this issue, I need to see that first part, that statement that to you may go without saying, but which to me seems a necessary starting point.