Thoughts on Theses: Henry Buren
Henry Buren is a philosophy major. His thesis looks at how Martin Luther King Jr.’s arguments for non-violent protests relate to self-respect — or disrespect. His current thesis advisor is Assistant Professor of Philosophy Rafeeq Hasan.
Q: What is your thesis about?
A: My thesis is in philosophy, and, in a nutshell, I look at Martin Luther King Jr.’s arguments for non-violence. I try to explain why I think he gives an argument as to why non-violence is necessary for self-respect. Why Black protesters, when they are protesting, need to be non-violent, because if they turn violent, they are, in a sense, disrespecting themselves. And it gets a little bit more tricky. I started looking at other types of arguments, and some critiques. I’ve drawn from Malcolm X, why he thinks being nonviolent is a form of disrespect, as well. But yeah, the overall broad picture is to give a philosophical argument as to why King thinks that being nonviolent is a form of self-respect.
Q: What motivated you to choose this topic?
A: First, I was very interested in violence in general, especially around Black Lives Matter protests. It would be like, ‘they burned down a building’ and everyone on Fox News, and Tucker Carlson, would act like it's the end of the world. So I was very interested in what it means to be violent or nonviolent at a protest. I was kind of bouncing around for a lot of the first semester, but then I realized I wanted to focus mainly on Black thinkers that everyone would hear about. The average person at Black Lives Matter protests would know about King and Malcolm X, so I focused on what they had to say about this. Then bringing in self-respect – why would I connect non-violence with self-respect? Mainly because, in general, I’m very interested in how to be in tune with yourself and acting in a way in which you’re real; you don’t want to be fake with yourself. So [I’m] trying to connect that with non-violence and with protesting and all that stuff.
Q: How has the process of writing your thesis evolved and changed over time?
A: Well, it changed drastically. First, I was interested in offering a conception of why King believes non-violence is a part of understanding Black people in America metaphysically. He has this really obscure passage where it says ‘Black people are both American and African,’ and that’s how you get African American. I was trying to connect that [conception] to being violent but then it spiraled out of control. Then I remember I turned in a substantial chunk at the beginning of this second semester, like 25 pages right at the end of J-term. Literally, not a single page was in my final thesis; I rewrote the entire thing. I was able to scrap that by working with my advisor, Professor [of Philosophy] Rafeeq Hasan. He was really insistent and was constantly thinking ‘we have to narrow this topic,’ ‘we have to think about what we are actually trying to discuss,’ because again, I was all over the place. It happened late in the game, I just wish it happened a bit earlier, but that’s just me — I’m a procrastinator.
Q: What kinds of new conclusions did you come to?
A: It really hit me the last week I was writing it so I guess I never got to really finish my thoughts. I just wish I had a couple of weeks to flesh out my thoughts.
I tried to connect King and Frantz Fanon and compared the way they think about dignity when it comes to Black people. The way I frame King, he’s talking about dignity in a very abstract, philosophical way. It all has to do with loving your neighbor because they’re human and treating yourself as a human being, and all that stuff — so that’s King’s conception of dignity. On the other hand, I started reading Frantz Fanon and his essays on violence very early into the game. He has this passage where he discusses dignity for colonized people particularly in Africa (which is where he was), and it isn’t this really abstract dignity [like with King]. It’s not really like that, it's not really philosophical — and not building on the Western traditions of thought. His dignity is very matter of fact, it comes from [colonized people] having their land back. So I was trying to see if you can kind of apply that type of dignity to America, and to Black people in America, especially while King is writing and while Frantz Fanon was writing. Black people don’t really want dignity when it comes to this weird conceptual thing. They want to be able to vote, to have the right to vote, so they can vote racist people out of office like it’s that simple. I was able to flesh out those two differences, I think. I wasn't able to actually say which one’s definitively better, which one I more agree with. I just didn't have enough time and I wasn’t able to come to the conclusion [without] doing more research on what other thinkers have to say, it was very much just intuition and I chose one side.
Q: How has writing this thesis made you think differently?
A: I've been thinking about self-respect forever now, so this is just what I think about now. But like I said briefly just acting in a way that’s real; getting rid of all the ‘fake’ aspects. I've just been thinking about that a lot. Or even just paying more attention to the ways our society is set up for Black people and people of color in general, how they are not able to be themselves and respect themselves and think of themselves as good people or have good self-esteem. There are constantly micro-aggressions against people and other dehumanizing gestures on the daily; it’s always the little things in life that add up. But I was also trying to think about these trends in bigger structural ways. That is, it’s not always you meet a person who has racial biases, and you’re in class and they spit it out all the time. It’s much more systematic, and all those big words. I just think about that more in general, in everyday life.
Q: What was your favorite part of the process?
A: I got to read a lot and I do really like reading. Now to be fair, I wouldn’t read too much. I guess to go back to the specifics of my own thesis, I really only focused on three speeches of King, two speeches of Malcolm X, and a chapter of Frantz Fanon. So there were maybe like 50 pages of writing, that I was just reading in general. So I just got to dig in deep right into a particular text and that also includes me reading around a lot — and I do like doing the extra reading. Another aspect I like is when I'm stuck on a problem, and I’m thinking about it a lot, and then it just comes to me, and when I start writing [the answer] out I feel like I'm really saying something smart. Usually the next day, you’re like, ‘Damn, that wasn't so smart,’ but when you’re writing it it’s fun.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to students thinking about writing a thesis, what would it be?
A: I won’t say anything about STEM majors, because I don't know what they go through. They’re just so wildly different, like they start in the summer and all that bullshit. But, [I’d say] two things: first is staying on top of work. All the worst parts about writing a thesis were when I didn’t work for a couple of days. It doesn’t even have to be a lot. Like it could be like an hour. Even if you can only get 30 minutes, it’s fine. Because the only way your thoughts are gonna grow, and your ideas are going to get more fleshed out is if you’re constantly thinking and working on them.
My second piece of advice is to be prepared for changes, [because] it is a long process. A year is a long time. All your advisors and professors will say when they start something — whether an essay, an article or a book — it always changes, and it’s completely different. Then when they write the project, it turns out to be completely different and they may not even think it’s a quality piece of work, they’re just like ‘Okay, I just have to get this out.’ So it’s very similar. You’re probably not going to say everything you want to say. That's completely fine. You may not think it’s an acceptable piece of work, but that’s completely fine. It’s just gonna change a lot.
And then I guess, lastly, let’s be real, no one's gonna read your thesis. If you’re a philosophy major, like five professors are going to read your thesis. If you’re in any other major, it’s your advisor, and then your second reader — no one's gonna read it. So use this time to work on yourself. Say you're looking for a job: think about how these skills could apply. You’re basically just doing long-term research and writing about it. Learn to analyze yourself and see how you deal with stuff like this. I've noticed a lot of tendencies I have when I write and I’ve realized I need to be aware of when I'm undertaking other writing processes. Become more self-aware of how you work and how you operate within long term projects, because, depending on what you do in the future — for example if you go into academia, it's basically what you're going to be doing more and more, and likewise if you go into other fields doing research. The thesis is a way to grow mentally and professionally. Just be aware of how you think and how you work and learn.