Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Oppositional Rhetoric

My campus is currently in debate over a document that a coalition of students presented to the University president about making the campus more racially inclusive. We are are mainly a white, upper-middle class private campus. The original document had worrisome features. Being largely in agreement with the structural analysis that the students provided, I thought the majority of students would be put off by the authoritarian rhetoric used in the document - and this has largely been the case. Except that, with this language, it sparked campus-wide debates and discussions about racism in America that might not have taken place if the language was prettified, flowery and easier to dismiss as pansy liberal pouting. And it needs to be reassessed in light of its democratic influence.

I assumed at first that the coalition was less interested in opening up discussion and more interested in throwing a list of demands at the administration and then turning their backs until they had been fulfilled. In this sense it would have appealed strictly to authority, while using no authority of its own to increase its influence on the administration. Most importantly, it would not have used popular support as a necessary component of that authority to have a legitimate democratic influence on the campus. I was worried that this model was more akin to what D.C. politics has been reduced to, what economists call "rent-seeking", and what the ordoliberals call the "re-feudalization" of democratic societies, and what might make more sense to call the lobbyist industrial complex.

But the group is interested in using more diffused methods of power to influence the University administration, by hosting discussions and talks about racism and structural inequalities in American society, by getting students involved. Presenting its case very radically may mean it ends up settling somewhere in the middle, yet without this radical presentation perhaps nothing at all would have been achieved. One of the coalition supporters commented today that the other students were so imbibed with white privilege that they feel they need to be approached in exactly the right way in order to address systemic racism in American society, that they needed to be appeased in order to take action and negate their own privilege. I think this is largely true, and is a better justification for the affirmative language, for jarring students from complacency, rather than appeasing students with flimsy support groups and head-nodding committees.


Anonymous said...

The need for a jarring awakening is certainly evident on our campus, and in some ways the CAIR document provided that, as you observe.

The problem with the CAIR approach, I would argue, is a matter of branding.

Your initial reaction to the CAIR document parallels much of what I believe the campus community felt: a foregone list of demands that were advanced without democratic process. Perhaps that sounds a bit more moderate than some of the dialogue we've seen, but I think it accurately characterizes the basis of the campus' discomfort.

After CAIR's e-mail last week, it is apparent that they DO in fact seek change through open discussion. But with a brand image so severely tainted by the characterization described above, I'm not sure that they are in a position to facilitate discussion. The same group that rudely awakens the white community at UPS cannot be the same group that advocates a reasoned and democratic approach.

The conversation is on the table, which is a great first step. But I'm afraid that if CAIR attempts to take a dominant role in facilitating the pursuant discussion we will be unable to move past our polarization.

Muser said...

I interpreted the rhetoric of the CAIR document as being traditional, in a long line of American protest-rhetoric, and springing also in part from the non-violent direct-action of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. So in one way, I was surprised by the campus-backlash, but in another way, I wasn't because, to some degree, the campus has been frozen in time for decades. If it weren't the relatively mild rhetoric of the CAIR document that jarred the campus awake regarding race and other differences, it would have been something else. Time is passing the campus by. Interestingly, the president of the university was unfazed by the rhetoric and saw it as a moment of creative tension. The productive response to the document owes much to many individuals, but also to the president's response, which was to treat the document as the beginning of a dialogue. Small liberal arts campuses are fragile eco-spheres, however, and they react with great sensitivity to "strong rhetoric"--as CAIR learned. . .