3/10: I have added some more thoughts below the essay as an addendum.
This post is a response to “Declaration of Dissent” by a “we” who call themselves Friends of the First Amendment. The group is otherwise anonymous. The Declaration was published today in response to the ongoing dialogue about systematic racial injustice at Seattle Pacific University, particularly the SPU Unity Petition, formulated by the SPU Justice Coalition—a group of students who have disclosed their names and faces on their website. In what follows, I will focus mainly on rhetoric and some broad themes that struck me. I write, hopefully as always, out of love for SPU and for its students (including the Friends of the First Amendment), faculty, and staff, and in solidarity with the SPU Justice Coalition.
I have a number of concerns about the petition, beginning with the anonymity of its author(s). The name “Friends of the First Amendment” suggests that someone’s first-amendment rights would be violated by the measures listed in the Unity Petition. But the authors are exercising their freedom of speech in fear by remaining anonymous. You are allowed to dissent. In fact, I believe that the Unity Petition should be critiqued and discussed—critique leads to the sharpening of ideas and proposals. But there is a choice: put your name to your dissent or perform your own loss of rights. I worry that the choice for the latter was made out of fear of retaliation or fear of being held accountable. As I have mentioned, the SPU Justice Coalition has chosen to show and name themselves. If you have questions, you can find one of them on campus and say “hello.” In showing and naming themselves, they have also made themselves subject to confrontation, forfeiting the comfort of anonymity. So, consider this a formal challenge and encouragement, Friends. If you love the community you are addressing and truly wish to be part of a conversation, be not afraid: sign your name and make yourself visible and accountable. And allow comments on your blog. As it stands, you have left no means for those who would like to to engage with you in what you have called “this essential discussion.”
I don’t think that rights are really the concern of this Dissent (or not the only concern, at any rate). I would hazard that a major concern stems from agitation over the de-centering of whiteness. I noticed that none of the following words are found anywhere in the piece: Native American, White, Black, Brown, Asian, Hispanic, Latina, Latino, African American, Pacific Islander. “People of color” are spoken about a few times, but “diversity” is by far the word of choice. This is undoubtedly in order to mirror the language of the SPU Unity Petition, which also prefers “diversity” and “minority,” perhaps to place an emphasis on unity. But the same vocabulary falls on my ears differently when spoken from the mouth of a disembodied, anonymous, and presumably white “we” who seem to be for diversity as an educational principle but against any means of achieving it. The “we” also suggests that we should be pursuing “intellectual diversity” but does not seem to believe that expanding the number of faculty of color would increase “intellectual diversity” in an essential way—which it would.
In the places in which I grew up, we weren’t supposed to acknowledge that this person is white or that that person is Black. If anything, we could reference someone as being caucasian or African-American if we absolutely had to for some reason, but you would be embarrassed and perhaps nervous about that and would try to avoid it at all costs. The effect of this is to make race a topic of anxiety amongst white people and to make “Black” a word of embarrassment and shame. It also performs the deceptive white stance of color-blindness, from which one can ignore someone else’s experience of race by saying that race isn’t actually a thing that has any real consequences. So, perhaps this isn’t quite fair, but the combination of by-and-large color-blind language with the emphasis on “intellectual diversity” and the authors’ refusal to attach names and faces to their words struck me as an avoidance—the words being spoken are divorced from any particular embodiment, any particular lived experience.
In the vein of ignoring or disbelieving the experiences of people of color, the petition fails to take into account the hurt experienced by people of color due to our community’s failings surrounding race. As a people of faith, SPU should take very seriously the ways in which we have failed to love one another and, indeed, the ways in which we have harmed one another. The only nod I see to this in the text is a brief mention of oppression, but even then, the word is put in scare quotes: “President Martin has stated that the university will employ a Chief Diversity Officer with the purpose of representing students from non-majority identity groups and serving as a resource to alleviate ‘oppression.'” This is a calculated move to delegitimize the experiences of those who are oppressed. It betrays a disbelief in the stories of SPU’s people of color.
The word is used again in the context of anxiety over the implementation of an anonymous reporting system for what the Unity Petition calls “inappropriate behavior and speech.” The Dissent’s concern is that such a system would be used to “oppress unpopular, minority opinions on campus because it shifts the credibility of interpretation of statements to the ear of the beholder, which would be a completely subjective and immeasurable standard of discriminatory speech and behavior.” The phrase “inappropriate behavior and speech” is, I thought, fairly self-explanatory in the context of the petition, but would probably be too vague to be encoded in official policy as is and could thus be helpfully clarified (racist language and behavior, belittling of or downright rejection of minority perspectives, cultural appropriation, intimidation, etc.). But what is interesting to me about the passage from the Dissenters quoted above is how they cleverly reframe the discussion by labeling themselves as the minority and thus the ones in need of protection—the oppressed. The fact is, although they do not speak for the institution or its current leaders, the Dissenters seem to me to be writing from a place of privilege—attempting to discourage any sort of changes that would actually disturb the status quo.
The Dissenters also voice the concern that an anonymous reporting system would create a “safe space”—words not actually found in the SPU Unity Petition. The Dissenters:
However, we do not believe that such a space encourages persons to grow and to build meaningful relationships. We believe that the university is a place where students ought to learn how to face opposition with grace. This interpersonal skill allows individuals to cultivate patience and humility in order to develop more wholehearted relationships across one’s lifetime. Safe spaces undermine the development of this skill.
From what I can understand, the hope behind implementing the reporting system would be to hold people accountable for racist language and behavior. The sort of dialogue necessary to “build meaningful relationships” is not compatible with racism. And, frankly, the statement that “students ought to learn how to face opposition with grace” sounds a lot like a request for racial minorities to stop complaining about the oppression they experience. This is dangerous.
While there are more problematic aspects of the “Declaration of Dissent” (including its melodramatic or pompous title that seems to be intended to echo the Declaration of Independence), I shall leave my discussion there. I would be glad to learn that I am wrong about any assumptions that I make above about its authors. But I also hope that those who feel challenged by the empowerment of minorities—racial, sexual, etc.—might pause their dissent to sit, listen, and practice empathy. This cannot happen anonymously; it is only possible in community.
I want to address a presumption I make above. I presume in my essay, fairly or unfairly, that the authors of the Dissent are white or majority white. I do this because they resist the suggestions of the SPU Justice Coalition, which is largely comprised of people of color; because they choose to identify themselves as “Friends of the First Amendment,” which is reminiscent to me of the rhetoric of a certain conservative branch of white evangelicalism that approaches the founding documents of our nation with the same reverence with which it approaches the Bible; and because they hold to a certain mind/body dualism that assumes that one’s knowledge (or indeed knowledge in general) can be separated from one’s lived experience, a dualism that would seem useful to those who want to argue against the intentional hiring of people of color and argue that studying “Western” philosophy, theology, literature, etc. ought to be adequate for all (which has been referred to, I believe, as academic colonialism) in the name of resisting “an extreme homogeneity of perspective toward social justice questions,” as if it is the task of diversity and the job of people of color to orient others toward social justice. It just sounds white.
Would it make a difference if there are people of color amongst the Friends? I offer the following thoughts.
As a cisgender gay man—someone who is both a man and attracted to men—it is possible for me to be sexist. I could believe that women just don’t measure up to men in a variety of ways. I could believe that the male body is superior to the female body and that the female body, because I don’t desire it or understand it, is disgusting. Following from that, I could view lesbians with as much contempt as a straight man could have for me. Some gay men are indeed misogynists and even homophobes.
As a cisgender gay man who has experienced the overwhelming love of SPU’s community, I could listen to another queer person at SPU who has not experienced such warmth and wonder what is wrong with them. Surely they are doing something wrong. As someone who has attempted to work through the system to affect dialogue and change, I could look at someone who is more likely to protest and ask, “Do they not know how to act properly? What is wrong with them?” There are queer alumni, current students, and students who have left the school who have not felt as welcome as I did. I can either see their differences from me as a deficiency on their part and dismiss them, or I can listen and try to understand why other queer people might not feel the same way as I do and stand in solidarity with them.
I may be gay, but I am still white, middle-class, cisgender, male, outgoing, and from a theological tradition similar to SPU’s. While I am a sexual minority, I still benefit from many avenues of privilege.
As it is possible for a gay man such as myself to benefit from and be blinded by the heteropatriarchy, I believe it is possible for people of color to benefit from and be blinded by structures that promulgate whiteness and to stand up for those structures to protect their own place of relative privilege that comes through association with them. This is a complicated position to inhabit, and I will not pretend that I can fully understand it because I am not living it. I imagine it is actually a very difficult and frustrating position to be in, particularly because it produces tension with other people of color.
Would it make a difference if there are people of color amongst the Friends? I don’t think so. It doesn’t change the piece’s rhetorical or ideological stances, and it doesn’t change the fact that in-person, face-to-face dialogue must occur.