On Oct. 28, 2016, this newspaper’s editorial board printed a reminder to the community that cultural appropriation is unacceptable and marginalizing. The editorial board invoked last year’s protests against Claremont McKenna College Dean of Students Mary Spellman and the resignation of CMC’s junior class president as examples of what can happen when we fail to be adequately sensitive.
This incident exemplifies how campus outrage can elevate micro-aggressions to levels of outrage that would be better directed at issues like healthcare access, educational inequity, and countless other societal problems we face. To tackle these issues, Claremont graduates will need to compromise with people who wholeheartedly disagree with them, not just squabble with people they largely agree with already. But compromise becomes impossible when the workforce is populated by people who don’t want to engage. Claremont students, who are mostly privileged (Pomona hovers around 20% domestic, underrepresented minority enrollment, for example), nowadays expect extreme levels of protection from insensitivity and offensiveness. The same people who posted on Facebook in solidarity with Yale students who felt wronged by an email that questioned institutional control over student Halloween costumes will someday be in the workplace, possibly being forced to handle other difficult situations such as the grammatically correct spelling of the word “woman,” inauthentic bibimbap, and the existence of gendered bathrooms. For all the talk that surrounds these sorts of topics, their importance pales in comparison to the issues we will soon face under this administration.
As college students, we spend so much time worrying about micro-aggressions that we don’t spend enough time tackling the macro-aggressions that are staring us in the face. Donald Trump is the president now, and his team has cited Japanese internment as precedent for a future Muslim registry. But people on this campus haven’t discussed this invocation of such a dark period in American history very much—outside of a couple politics classes—because they spend more time focusing on perceived offenses directed at mostly privileged college students than they do pondering ways to actually help those who will face real oppression. And even when they do talk about it, the outrage is confined to social media and ineffective campus protests. We need people gearing up for the front lines in D.C., not hiding behind likes on facebook.
Our campus culture of constant outrage tends to falsely equate micro-aggressions with overt racism. By this, I do not mean to insinuate that questioning where an Asian-American is ‘from’ is acceptable. But raising such relatively minor concerns to the level of outrage normally reserved for genocide, war crimes, or Clinton supporters is entirely unhelpful if our goal is to create a more harmonious and inclusive culture. All it does is convince the right wing that any complaint about inclusion is just another part of the liberal outrage machine. And, frankly, that assessment is becoming truer as time passes. For every legitimate complaint about a subtly racist comment, there seems to be a Pomona student advising against taking a CMC class because the professor is ‘conservative.’ If we condemn CMC professors the same way we do racism, how are those who haven’t already drunk the Claremont Kool-Aid supposed to distinguish between legitimate calls for inclusion and the Claremont orthodoxy?
Overly zealous social justice warriors shouldn’t preclude everyone else from addressing legitimately problematic issues. But the marketplace of ideas is not functioning properly. Thoughtful and well-defended ideas are not coming out on top. Strident, loud, and overinflated complaints coming largely from white people are. Thus, those who wish to address legitimate issues are not able to participate in campus discourse. The Claremont orthodoxy has become the litmus test for being heard. If a male who is known for being ‘woke’ asks for advice on checking his privilege, he is lauded for his humility. But a male less well accepted for being ‘woke’ who inquires similarly is berated for asking women to solve all of his problems (I’ve seen this happen). The quality of the ideas does not matter anymore. What matters is how those who hear the ideas feel about the people producing them.
When we give in to intolerance of even hearing something that offends us, we risk becoming habituated to the Claremont bubble. An attorney who visited Claremont as part of Sophomore Reorientation told her audience that she decided to become a lawyer rather than work in policy because it allowed her to avoid compromising. She openly admitted to desiring the ability to be strident — she used the word “strident” herself. While I’m not going to comment on the merits of choosing law over policy as a career, it does seem problematic that this Pomona alum, who attended when the institution was less liberal, preferred to avoid compromise that might help society. If you haven’t seen this for yourself, ask a Bernie-or-buster to explain to you why compromising on health insurance policy with Republicans is a bad idea.
While promoting an inclusive campus environment is a worthy cause, it should not be pursued at the expense of generally free campus discourse. And free discourse requires that we err on the side of caution in restricting potentially offensive expression. Those who think we should have a careful discussion about what kinds of Halloween costumes are acceptable shouldn’t be shunned for daring to contradict the Claremont orthodoxy. We need to foster the kind of environment that prepares us to argue with people who truly disagree with us, lest we become intellectually lazy and dismiss legitimate, but possibly upsetting arguments. If we are confident in our ideas, let them win on the battlefield.
James McIntyre PO ’19 is a philosophy major. He likes to write and play with his two German shepherds.