You are Guilty of Feeling Guilty
|UVA students protest at the Jefferson statue. Photo/ Zack Wasgras/The Daily Progress|
A University of Virginia activist group called UVA Students United this past weekend protested against and caused to be shut down a fraternity party that had a cops and robbers theme. Why? Because the partygoers' costumes "made a joke of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, systems that disproportionately brutalize people of color."
Even in an era of heightened sensitivity, this one is hard to fathom. In a statement posted to the group's Facebook page, the activists took to task the fraternity and its guests for being "willing to make a joke of systems that kill and brutalize marginalized communities."
I'm sorry, am I missing something? On the totem pole of importance, I would have to think that protecting inmates from hurt feelings has to rank pretty low.
There is a longstanding debate as to the purpose of incarceration. Is it to punish or to rehabilitate? Numerous studies have shown that the rate of recidivism by federal parolees is about 50%. That being the case, the rehabilitation argument seems a shaky premise. Notwithstanding any rehabilitative effort, prison is supposed to be penal. That's why it's called the penal system. You do the crime, you do the time. So for this group to be offended by this fact seems to smack of a group looking for a cause.
And that's the problem. There are just too many people wandering around looking for reasons to be offended. Our society has become one big Festivus, a continuous airing of grievances. Wall Street corruption, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, hate speech, Confederate monuments, prison conditions, police brutality, legal bias, transgender military service, immigration, foreign wars, the tax code, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton…it goes on and on. Yes, most of these are issues that need addressing, but in my opinion these efforts lose much of their thrust when the aggrieved party is as intolerant as the intolerance they protest. The irony is unbelievable.
These activist groups employ guilt as their primary weapon. As a white male, it’s not easy or comfortable for me to push back against accusations of bias or indifference when I know that the accusers have the benefit of moral high ground. I can’t, for instance, disagree with the tactics employed by Black Lives Matter without appearing to oppose what they are trying to accomplish. There is no delineation. If you agree with the issue then you must also agree with their approach.
Because of my race and gender, I supposedly am the problem. I am expected to acknowledge my guilt without attempting to qualify it. To argue that I am not part of the problem implies that I don't see a problem, that I don't believe white supremacy is an issue, or that black lives matter, or that minorities deserve equal protection or benefits, or even that “prison disproportionately brutalizes people of color. “ And that’s just not true.
It seems there is no limit to the potential scope of offense. Well, there are limits—the “meat is murder” faction never has seemed to gain critical mass, for example—but on the issues of race, sexual preference, and equal opportunity, the perceived offenders almost always are compelled to backpedal. It's quite difficult to defend oneself against charges of bias without being perceived as tone-deaf, disconnected, misogynist, racist, or, if possible, even worse. You are guilty unless you can prove otherwise, but how does a person prove the innocence of a belief? These people will tell you that action is the only remedy.
There’s a problem with this view, however. Emotions are subjective. We don't all react in the same way to external stimuli. A movie that brings one viewer to tears may leave another unmoved. Your issue may not be my issue. Even while acknowledging that Confederate monuments are divisive, for example, it may be difficult for someone who has been laid off and is facing eviction to make monument protest priority #1. Does that make them complicit? Everyone has different priorities and views, but these groups don’t seem to respect that dynamic. There is no middle ground. You are either with them or against them. It’s like accusing those who don’t attend church of lacking faith. Ridiculous. People do their good work in different ways.
In yet another protest on the UVA grounds last night, this one wide-ranging, “multiple speakers shared their thoughts with the crowd, many of whom criticized the university administration for its response to the (August alt-right) rallies and claimed the university was not paying its workers a living wage. The crowd implored one another to remain steadfast in their protestations,” according to an article in today’s Charlottesville Daily Progress.
“‘There is only one side to this,” said one of the protesters standing upon the Jefferson statue.’” And that stance, coming from a college student with limited life experience, highlights the issue that many people have with these protests and the protestors themselves.
1 There is never only one side.
2 College kids with limited life experience are perhaps not the best arbiters.
3 The intolerance displayed by these protestors undermines their effort.
It wasn’t easy for me to write this. Publishing this will open me up to the claims I have just written about. That I am part of the problem. That I am tone deaf. I’m just the opposite, actually. I am tuned in and paying attention. I understand the issues, but I want to explore why there is so much resistance on issues that should find almost universal acceptance. Putting aside the issue of ignorance, I believe that it’s the tactics that people have little patience with, not the message.
|A sign at the Jefferson statue last night. Photo/ Tanner Hirschfeld|
Last night, students who chose to attend the university that he founded branded Thomas Jefferson a rapist and a racist and repeated claims that the statue honoring his legacy is a monument to—and reminder of—white supremacy and thus has to be removed or at least "recontextualized to include that history (of white supremacy)." This view completely ignores his hugely important societal contributions, contributions that made possible last night's protest. This issue, like all of the ones before us, is not one-sided despite protestor claims that it is.