Letter to the Middlebury Community

By Eli Susman

My dear people of Middlebury,

I saw an 18-year-old white woman crying in front of 800 people in Mead Chapel; she’d been publicly berated for wearing a hat. Not out of spite. Not out of hate. She had been attending Middlebury for a matter of weeks and did not yet learn that wearing a sombrero was cultural appropriation. Putting aside for the moment concerns about white fragility, her real offense was not already being perfect.

I see day after day white people who are or would be curious about the movement, critically analyzing their privilege and trying to become woke, get shut down the moment they make a mistake. Some call it racism; I call it ignorance. Silencing our potential allies as they try to unlearn that ignorance only broadens the divide in our community already struggling with anxiety and loneliness. I don’t want to be one of those guys saying all lives matter, but I don’t want the social justice movement to lose the fundamental principle of what a safe space is: being able to be ourselves without fear of judgment. To create spaces safe for marginalized students and therefore all students, we have to open the doors of learning to everyone.

I was told from an early age that college is a place to become better citizens of the world, to learn by trial and error. But this is not my experience with social justice on campus. How can we learn and grow when we can’t fail? How can we demand “perfection” when we demand it immediately and prevent people from the learning process to get there?

One problem with this environment is that words like “privilege” and “cultural appropriation” become their own rigid truths. I rarely see students challenge one another’s beliefs—refining definitions, premises, and all—to develop more nuanced positions. We wind up with a limited conversation and few solutions. I see potential allies alienated, when some of my peers, passionate and knowledgeable about their beliefs, have trouble articulating them to people who don’t share their same vocabulary. But I can’t blame activists for speaking the language of justice, whose sound bites are designed to be shared, liked, and retweeted. We are rewarded online and in school for cleverness, zingers, jargon, and one-liners. But as Purdue’s Frederik Deboer, a linguistics professor, describes: “They say terms like ‘privilege’…and expect the conversation to somehow just stop, that if you say the magic words, you have won that round and the world is supposed to roll over to what you want.”

Socrates had a similar experience in his time and started to question religion, but was put to death for “impiety.” With our ostensibly dogmatic social justice movement it often seems like we are doing the same thing to other. To affect change we have to be willing to refine and be refined. Socrates advocated continuously investigating our beliefs for a more sophisticated understanding.

Solidarity, being an activist or an ally, is not silent agreement. Nor is it a parroting “agreement on all matters.” Despite Campus op-eds, town hall meetings, and diversity-themed email chains, there are many people on campus who do not yet understand cultural appropriation. Demanding change hasn’t made it happen. It won’t happen until we allow people to ask important, nuanced, possibly poorly-worded questions. Otherwise, we’ll become trapped by vague, unspoken definitions, censoring everything that might be cultural appropriation until we lose our sense of identity and expression.

Deboer calls it critique drifting when a particular critical political lens that correctly identifies a problem gets generalized and used less and less specifically over time. This in turn blunts the force of the critique and ultimately fuels a backlash against it. Critique drift is a way that good political arguments go bad.

Let’s keep in mind our goal: a safe, healthy, diverse and supportive community, at risk from political correctness that, instead of educating us out of harming each other, undergoes critique drift and broadens into censorship. Particularly harmful is a censorship not only of ideas but also of voices. While judging the value of a voice by its privilege alone doesn’t carry the historical weight of racism, it only inverts the dynamic. It is dangerous. It doesn’t end censorship or un-safety; it just changes who has to deal with it and further divides community.

I see many of my fellow students hoping to protect themselves from further suffering by sticking to people who share their ideological boxes. At the core of psychology, helping people avoid the things they fear is misguided.

Here are some things we all have in common: we are all suffering, and we all live on the same campus. I understand many of us are tired. White feelings are not more important than the feelings of a person of color and vice-versa. Perhaps instead of calling people out, we can call them in. Instead of taking people’s words for face value, we can try to look into what they are actually trying to say, while we are learning to say what we actually mean. This is not something we can do alone. Middlebury can help.

One problem: In a social justice class, we can read thousands of pages learning about privilege, but spend little to no time learning how to confront it in our interactions with others. The classroom is one of the few spaces at Middlebury where people interact with others outside their circles, and we often go through an entire semester without learning each other’s names.

My fellow students and I may have to study hard and write long papers, but we often hide within objective information without having to venture out of our comfort zones. The result is that pain becomes intellectualized. For example, I hear people saying that white people just have to accept that they are all racist, should start unlearning their racism, and the world will be a better place. In my experience, calling each other racist doesn’t make people want to unlearn; it makes them afraid to unlearn. This is not white fragility. This is not some hippie tree-hugger doctrine. This is just how people work. Perhaps we can investigate how our classmates and our own lived experiences play into what we are learning.

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize, sharing experience transforms ignorance into understanding and fear into love. Putting words to experience can be hard and draining, especially when the person doing the explaining feels like they are representing an entire group of people. These feelings are valid, and sharing experience is not the same as representing an entire group. If you do not understand why, try listening to people share their experience. Two Native Americans have different experiences being Native American, and two people who are Jewish have different experiences being Jewish. In my experience, when we understand the people who disagree with us, we recognize what will help them value our perspective. We can understand each other by listening, and the more present we are with people who we are trying to understand, the better listeners we can be.

My question is: how are we supposed to be present for each other when school is moving a million miles an hour? How are we supposed to understand and learn about other cultures and the lived experiences of people if we are assigned thousands of pages of reading each week?

Middlebury needs to slow down.

I am an EMT, and when we have a life-or-death emergency, we don’t rush. What’s going to save a life is not those extra few minutes or seconds of tripping over ourselves, it’s the critical interventions that must be done slowly (yet efficiently) to make sure what we’re doing is being done properly and that we are not missing anything. For some reason, at Middlebury, it feels like those extra few seconds are life or death, and it almost never feels like we’re doing it right. I see students walking to class faster than a medic walking to a motor vehicle crash. When we live as human doings instead of human beings, ignorance is the result.

I’m afraid we are moving way too quickly—too quickly to learn well, too quickly to listen to each other, too quickly to change. We move so quickly we cannot prioritize the hard work of healing together. In the same way reading a book about exercise wouldn’t make one stronger, healing is not something we can just study to accomplish. Understanding takes practice, practice needs a space, and I cannot create that alone.

We can be there for each other if we are able to prioritize ourselves. And often, we don’t. Our frenetic pace, our workload, and our go-it-alone success narrative do not allow us to be introspective, and so we struggle to turn that self-love outwards and begin the process of community change and healing.

While we are unlearning ignorance, we can relearn the art of relaxing. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “not only does it help prevent the onset of many illnesses that develop through chronic tension and worrying; it allows us to clear our minds, focus, and find creative solutions to problems.”

There is going to come a time when we realize that in an effort to do good for the world we need the Muslim, the Jew, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the transgender woman, the person of color, and the heteronormative wealthy, white, straight, able-bodied, Anglo-Saxon Protestant cis-male. One perspective is inherently lacking. When looking at a sculpture, one person cannot appreciate its full beauty. Some parts cannot be seen from their angle. The blind person can walk up to the sculpture and feel it, and if they can’t walk we can build a ramp, because when we combine our perspectives we can gain an even greater understanding.

Let’s work together to build a better community.

Warm regards,
Eli Susman

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