Picky Politics

I was alerted to recent happenings at Reed by one of my former professors, with whom I’ve kept in contact since graduation.

They wrote,

Reed is in the midst of chaos, and there are doubts regarding when it will end.  A very small group of students have been protesting for this and that now for nearly two months, with little active support from students or faculty.  However, it has split the faculty apart, as well as the student body, and chaos seems to reign.  It has also put quite a damper on nearly all classes, or at least those in the humanities and social sciences.  We need leadership among the administration, but are not getting it.  Where it will end is unknown to me.

I google-newsed Reed but (at the time, you’ll get very different results now) couldn’t find anything more than a few celebrations, articles about the post-election protests in Portland where the college is mentioned briefly, and an obituary for a student who I remember from my days working at the campus bookstore who apparently became a NYT best-selling author before dying of a cocaine overdose. You know, the average smattering…

But this past week there was news. Apparently the film director of Boys Don’t Cry came to campus to give a speech – and was shouted out of the hall by a small group of students raining her with epithets and shaking signs that read with the like of “F* this CIS B*tch!”. As one journal reports it,

There was a time not so long ago when the people shouting “fuck you bitch” at a gender-fluid gay filmmaker would have been bigoted right-wing conservatives. But because we currently live in the year 2016, the people who heckled Kimberly Peirce—director of Boys Don’t Cry, a groundbreaking film about a transgender man—during her recent appearance at Reed College were far-left students.

The students hurled a litany of insults at Peirce, putting up posters that read “fuck your transphobia” and “you don’t fucking get it” among other things. Worse, when Peirce ascended to her podium, students had placed a sign there. It read “fuck this cis white bitch.” That Peirce is actually gender-fluid is quite beside the point.

This has been followed by quite a lot of discussion on the Reed FB Group, which is about 70% alumni.  What strikes me as odd is that the very vocal trans/trans-supportive students and recent alumni seem to have this idea that because they are members of an “oppressed minority” that others have to listen to them and have to do it on their own terms.

There are a few reasons why this strikes me as odd.  First, their claim to ‘minoritiness’ seems to ignore the fact that pretty much everyone is a minority somewhere, sometime. (i.e. as I’ve written before, I’m often mistaken for a young Russian in a country that seems plenty of ethno-nationalism defined against a Soviet past and have, as a result, seen definite discourtesy based on this assumption about my identity; I’ve also experienced plenty of gender-based wage discrimination as a female – like when my husband’s employer offered me 20% of his salary for a position of equivalent rank; my husband may an educated male, but – besides being a minority/foreigner in Kyrgyzstan, he’s also a political and religious minority in his own country.  I could go on and on with different examples, but you probably get the point – near everybody is a minority in some right).  Can you imagine if it would be like if every minority or oppressed population (that is, everyone at some point) demanded that everyone else listen to them in a not give-and-take discussion? We’d have a true cacophony – how would anyone decide who should be heard when all have the right to speak unmatched by an obligation to listen?

Basically, they don’t own minorityness or experience of oppression.  Why did Trump get so many votes from the poor white population? By-and-large because they felt themselves to be an oppressed and marginalized segment of society.  But I doubt the trans-activists posting on the FB group feel much sympathy for them or would sit down and hear what they feel they have to say.  It’s selective minoritization.

Second, their approach does not seems very productive.  Squabbling among people who hold generally the same viewpoints on small differences is not what leads to broad changes in policy and practice. In the past few years we’ve seen several instances where squabbles among the left have led to right-wing takeovers in politics (see: Turkey and the coalition government that didn’t happen, Donald Trump’s triumph in America).  Why alienate your allies? Considering who America [kind of] just elected to president, shouldn’t we be a little more worried about protecting fundamental rights and defending the human respect due to all individuals, be they trans or female or black or Hispanic or immigrant or Muslim or WASP or anything else?  They would be far more likely to see results (and receive sympathy and support) if they asked not who directly agrees with and supports with, but who would work with them for like aims (such as preserving freedom of speech, lobbying for safer streets or protection of all individuals from violence and harassment). Alienating others does not alliances create.

One of the things the students seem to be lobbying for (besides a gender-neutral bathroom in one last lecture hall…this on a campus where most of the dorm bathrooms are gender-neutral) is for something to be done about the “transphobic” professors remaining on campus.  From my days with TFC, where local teachers in rural Yunnan attempted to actively ignore and shame lower-performing students who weren’t likely to pass the high school entrance exam out of class, I’ve learned that people who ‘go away’ do not cease to exist.  Just as students pushed out of school are still there in the community, so would be ‘transphopic’ professors asked to leave (or harassed out of) the school.  They’ll just go and be ‘transphobic’ elsewhere.

Why I’ve left transphobic in quotation marks is because I very much doubt many professors at Reed are truly afraid of or repelled by trans individuals.  My former professor (from the first quote) may indeed by labeled as ‘transphobic’ for wishing students would top their protesting but, from hours working with him over my time in college, I’m guessing his greatest concern is that all this activism is detracting from the academic and he just wishes students would come to class on time, thoroughly read the assigned texts  beforehand, engage in thoughtful (and respectful) dialogue in roundtable class discussions, and put effort into writing solid and insightful papers. If that means that he might, for example, try to lead class discussion back to the text under study, then – that’s what good academics and good discussion-leaders do.  They stay on the agenda. Is that so very surprising?

Even the dean of faculty, Nigel Nicholson, wrote in The Quest, the student newspaper,  that he was “deeply embarrassed and ashamed of our conduct”as “the actions that I saw were not animated by the spirit of inquiry or the desire to learn that usually animates Reed audiences. The students had already decided what they thought, and came to the question-and-answer session to make their judgments known, not to listen and engage. Some brought posters bearing judgments and accusations. Others asked questions, that, while grammatically questions (that is, they ended with question marks), were not animated by a genuine desire to explore a question, but rather sought to indict the speaker.”.

Reedies new, stop being picky. Leading your own potential allies to the axe isn’t going to do you or your cause any good.

 

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