A Response to "Conflicts on Campus"

I’d like to offer a couple of thoughts in response to President Biddy Martin’s “Conflicts on Campus” email to the Amherst College community. The first has to do with her discussion of the drawing of a swastika on the face of an unconscious student during an off-campus party. Why, she asks, would anyone draw such a symbol — and, although she doesn’t say it, why would anyone take pictures of the student’s face and post them on social media — when it is, obviously, “the symbol under which the Nazis exterminated over six million Jews and large numbers of other targeted groups”? The answer, I think, has to do with the way in which racism and things like it — misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. — have acquired, in some people’s eyes, a glamor, as a result of the way in which it is possible to associate them with transgressiveness, with the pseudo-heroic expression of an unimpeded freedom. Why would anyone do something so shocking? To shock people — or, in this case, to signal to oneself and one’s peers that one is free, courageous, fearless, pleasure-seeking, pleasure-taking and fun.

I say this because my father was a virulent hater of non-white people — including, in his mind, people of Irish descent, like my mother (along with me and my brothers). I grew up in an almost entirely white town in rural Maine and almost all of my afternoons and early evenings (he would pass out between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.) were spent trying to manage his drunkenness. That meant, in part, listening to him say — in the belief that he was being free, courageous, fearless, pleasure-seeking, pleasure-taking and fun — awful things about many different kinds of people. In addition to coming away from that 17-year experience with a basic feeling of moral repulsion, I came away from it, as I have told many of my classes, with an important piece of information about racist forms of expression: that they are excruciatingly boring. By the time I was a teenager I had developed, in addition to a moral repulsion, sharpened by the fact that many of the racist attacks were attacks on my mother, a kind of despair. Again and again and again, he would express the same absence-of-thinking thoughts in the same crude formulations (“That’s the way those sons of bitches are!”). When I was very young I knew only that it was cruel; when I was older I knew as well that it was illogical; when I was a teenager, I knew that it made me want to shoot myself. Anything to escape a vicious, cramped space that was, to its monarch, the freest, most pleasurable kingdom on earth.

So that’s one of the things I want to say: that it seems very likely to me that the person who drew the swastika — and the penis that appeared alongside it in the Snapchat photos — did it because he wanted to think of himself as a magnificently liberated being. It is worth underscoring just how agonizingly familiar and predictable he actually is.

The other thing I want to say sort of follows from that. I fully share President Martin’s conviction that we need to “develop greater curiosity and knowledge on campus not only about one another’s social identities, but also about one another’s inner lives and what we can create when we interact with openness, rather than prejudice, and when we seek to learn in greater depth.” I want to add only that these forms of interaction are worth pursuing not just because they are right and good, but because they are truly pleasurable openings-up of oneself and one’s world. One of the central tenets of contemporary American racism is that anti-racists are joyless. This is insane. Racists think of people as fixed facts, done deals, things from whom nothing new can come. Anti-racists, by definition, don’t know what, or who, is coming next. Racist enjoyment is thin, limited and obsessively protected; it depends on the separation of one’s mind from worldly reality. Anti-racist enjoyment involves a sensing of possibilities in one’s interactions with others, with an emphasis on the possibility of thinking and feeling differently when one is thinking and feeling in conjunction with someone else. From a zoomed-out perspective, anti-racism is most obviously a moral and political issue. From a zoomed-in perspective, one that is focused on moment-to-moment interactions with others, it is (I think) most obviously an experimentation with the possibilities of consciousnesses and relationships. The more aware we are of that fact, the more likely we will be to value, in President Martin’s words, “the conditions that make it possible to think and to learn” — because they are the same conditions that make it possible to really like being alive.