Rethinking the Consequences of Neutrality

By Tyler McDowell, Middlebury Student

I wore a suit to protest Charles Murray.

I now need to explain that choice, for the record, for anyone who thinks it’s a neutral fashion statement, and more importantly for the friends whose trust I fractured with the decision.

Background: AEI was hosting a dinner after the event during which people could engage in a formal conversation with our esteemed guest. I’m not a member of AEI, but asked them to attend that dinner so I could ask Murray pointed questions that made him uncomfortable and in that way celebrate a tiny victory over my own white supremacist ancestors. They OK’d my attendance, told me to wear a coat and tie and walk to the Abernethy room with them after the “talk” (presumably in step with Murray). I notified the Wonderbread email list and suggested they send me any questions they wanted asked. I decided to opt out of shutting him down, assured that I could defend my anger against Murray and simultaneously claim exemption from protesting because my energy was focused elsewhere.

So here’s what wearing the suit communicated, given my abstention from protesting:

  1. I support the College’s decision to bring Charles Murray here.
  2. My own intellectual curiosity is more important than the lives of those targeted by discriminatory pseudoscience.
  3. Regardless of this de facto endorsement, I get a free “woke” badge for feebly challenging a white supremacist.

I ultimately decided to join in protesting anyway, at the last minute, because I had friends involved and wanted to support them. Once there, I got loud and found an anger I hadn’t known before. It wasn’t just the mob mentality talking. It felt good to shout down white supremacy. But I still felt compelled to go to the dinner. In the chaotic aftermath of Murray’s flight to the Student Activities Office, I nonchalantly alternated between joining my friends in continued protest and talking with some acquaintances of mine from AEI, both to ask them if the dinner was still happening and to discuss their feelings about the protest. I assured them that I would still be civil when I attended the event, and chatted confidently and calmly while my friends kept chanting their voices hoarse.

In short, I actively protested and supported Charles Murray at the same time, to nearly the maximum degree possible in either direction, considering the limitations of my student role. Side note: I also jumped the line to get in. Yeah, I’m that low.

At this point it should be evident to anyone reading that this isn’t really about the suit. Full disclosure: part of my decision had to do with the fact that I look fly in a suit and will not pass up an opportunity to wear one. I encourage everyone to wear whatever clothing you like, whenever you like. But the fact that I chose to wear a suit on this particular day, in the face of intense emotional turmoil and naked disciplinary threats toward my fellow protesters from the school many of us call home, and pretended everything was cool with the students who brought Charles Murray here, says something bigger about me.

Ultimately, my decisions meant:

  1. The organizers’ efforts are less important than my own, because I get to disproportionately reap the benefits of our efforts without the associated psychological and physical stress.
  2. My contributions to this event are important and I get free social capital. And friends from AEI.
  3. Even in anti-racist activism — no, especially in anti-racist activism — white supremacy and its cultural manifestations must remain intact. The suit is more important than my friends’ humanity.

Overall, it means I cannot be trusted. I am an enemy in this fight for justice, and a sinister one: I remain dormant in the ranks and then I waltz in, co-opt the movement and actively undermine its strength. I may be the most insidious agent of white supremacy this campus has ever seen. How’s that for a badge?

For those who are still confused, or think I’m being too hard on myself, let me be clear about something: I wanted to attend that dinner. Deep down, I respect Charles Murray, regardless of his views. He’s an old, white, male intellectual, which is all I ever wanted to be growing up. It sounds silly, but I’m completely serious. That’s who got respect and reverence in my culture. White patriarchs with money run the country, and I was raised on promises that if I worked hard enough, I could do that too. And send my kids to college, and retire in Florida with a sizable pension. And golf. In my universe, oppression ended with the Civil Rights Movement, and poor people never existed except in movies and brief snapshots of unusually clean city streets, so it didn’t matter what kind of corporate greed was financing my parents. All I needed to do was study hard, and ignore my feelings. And smile. Oh, and holding differently colored hands helps you earn moral brownie points. I learned that from Elementary School textbooks.

Academia is my drug, and Middlebury College is an intellectual opium den for young rich assholes and social media progressives. (These are not mutually exclusive categories; I am living proof of that). The size of our endowment doesn’t concern me; nor does the emotional state of those without my unearned wealth. I have very, very important things to learn here. Because I need a degree. Because I need a well-paying job. Because…

To my friends, and to anyone who helped organize or protest: last week, I betrayed you. I am ashamed and deeply sorry. I don’t expect you’ll forgive me. I just want you to know that I’ll work three times as hard to make sure your professors and other members of the “Middlebury College community” never unwittingly buy into white supremacy again. It’s too deeply woven into our minds to ignore anymore; it always has been. But you know that. Regardless of how this all plays out, I won’t look back on my life in 30 years and recall fondly that I spent most of my time peacefully studying, gleefully building social connections and consistently getting smashed. Sorry, Middlebury, I’m not sorry.

Students with an upbringing at all similar to mine (you know who you are), I need you to hear this: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I leave you with a quotation from the famous Apartheid-era archbishop Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

You may have heard this line before, but let it sink in for a second. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

What we seem to forget is that country has never not been in a situation of injustice. It’s past time that we stop pretending that neutrality is possible. That goes for all of us, especially President Patton. Let her and your professors know.

(I encourage anyone, and I mean anyone, who is curious or angry about any of this to talk about it. I am here for that if you need it. If you specifically want to yell at me for being the worst ally in history, I am also receptive to that idea. I hope this helps you think through your own life, if even a little bit. Please reach out, whenever, at [email protected])