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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Walk on the bewildering side

Image result for harvard social justice placemat

College should be where things “get more complicated, not less,” writes Lyell Asher, a Lewis & Clark English professor, in The American Scholar.  Yet many students — and their teachers — avoid complexity and embrace “simplifications.”

Feeling offended implies an offense, and where there’s an offense there must be a culprit guilty of having committed it. No need to bother with the complexities of  context and intention—it says here that “impact” is what matters, that how I feel is what counts. No need to wonder whether an expression of hatred is real or a ruse, isolated or endemic—assume the worst and take the part for the whole. But of course that’s the problem with homophobia, racism, sexism, religious extremism, and any other “ism” you care to mention. They’re shortcuts. Tell me your skin color, or your gender, whom you want to sleep with or marry, what god you worship or deny, and I’ll fill in the rest.

Last fall, before students went home on break, some Harvard staffers distributed Holiday Placemats for Social Justice in a campus dining hall: The mats offered talking points for family discussions on “race, student activism, and the refugee crisis,” writes Asher.

 . . . combining the proselytizing confidence of a fundamentalist religious tract with the marketing opportunism of McDonald’s, those placemats suggested that you could bear witness to the truth about everything from the Halloween costume controversy at Yale to the Syrian refugee crisis, all without missing a bite. . . .  No need to think through these issues yourselves—we’ve done the thinking for you. Besides, it’s what everyone else will be thinking this fall.

Diversity talk is “long on the differences between groups, but short on the differences within them, and within each one of us,” writes Asher.

Yet these last differences—the “multitudes” and contradictions that Whitman found within himself—provide the surest route to human connection and regard, because only when we recognize and admit just how mysterious we are even to ourselves, can we begin to relate to one another with open attitudes of humility and uncertainty, rather than closed attitudes of judgment and fear.

Students need to learn the value of being frustrated and confused, writes Asher. Walk on the bewildering side.

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