April 26, 2013

The false promise of neutral discourse

Recent op-ed mischaracterizes the true weaknesses of “Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions."

Jake Smith’s Maroon article last week is a perfect example of the position of subaltern individuals in relation to general discourse. Smith, seemingly a white male, wrote a Viewpoints column discussing an issue to which he will never be able to relate personally. This is not to “silence” or “condemn” him. From his perspective, I’m sure that the article is well reasoned and not intentionally hurtful, but it is nonetheless an example of how a lack of experience can limit one’s ability to have meaningful discussions.

I am aware of the “sardonic replies” to the Boston bombing, some of which sought to contextualize the bombing in reference to the murder rate in Chicago. Are these reactions what he was referring to? I talked to people who share Smith’s sentiments, but who refuse such a comparison, citing the shock value of a bombing—people express concern at homicide where it is not supposed to occur. Comparatively, murder on the South Side is often treated with sad indifference due to its frequency. Race tends to correlate with the amount of attention each event receives; and to justify this double standard of reaction is simply to perpetuate the sort of sentiments that make us feel unworthy of humanity.

These sorts of sentiments are littered throughout Smith’s article. They demonstrate his power to create a narrative that summarizes discussion from his perspective with no room for refutation. He claims that Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions (PIMC), aside from a raft of disingenuous or deliberately provocative content, contains “a select few submissions pos[ing] genuine questions hoping to gauge readers’ perspectives on complex issues of discrimination.” He characterizes the responses to these submissions as a “[d]istaste for particular ideas [that] has morphed into distaste for honest expression.” These uneven assessments provide a narrative that presents PIMC as a good idea—a place where all people can engage in reasoned discourse and learn.

This characterization clashes with reality, and not only because the numbers of posts that are deliberately hurtful far exceed those that are not. The truth is that Smith, regardless of his intention, cannot understand how someone who has faced systematic discrimination views these sorts of events and posts. If there is a separation between one’s reason and one’s consciousness, it gets lost in the language games played by the majority of people in society. The colloquial use of terms like “ghetto” or “bitch” shows how loaded terms can be appropriated into mainstream use with little concern. The insistence on normalizing problematic terms creates an environment in which the essence of “discourse” is biased.  This normalization leaves little room for distinction between what someone thinks and who she is.

From this perspective, Smith’s suggestion that we (assuming that it is the subaltern’s responsibility to educate her exploiters) “show [him] the error of [his] ways” makes little sense. I can demonstrate and articulate these problems within Smith’s pseudo-neutral discourse, but this does not resolve the tension between a well-reasoned debate and the necessity of that debate being framed by the perspectives of the majority—the privileged. The picture illustrated by Benjamin Lange that ran alongside Smith’s article is a perfect example of how the subaltern perceives neutral dialogue.

It is not my responsibility to demonstrate why Smith’s arguments are paternalistic and upsetting—language games have been written on extensively. DuBois and Fanon both reveal the weakness of dialogue when some of its participants do not have to create for themselves a space in which the dialogue’s framework permits their existence. This is an emotional project—one Smith will never have to undertake. We cannot separate the emotional experience of discrimination from our rational sense of discussion, nor should we have to. As Arendt puts it, “If I describe these conditions without permitting my indignation to interfere, I have lifted this particular phenomenon out of its context in human society, and have thereby robbed it of part of its nature, deprived it of one of its important inherent qualities.”

I have not engaged with other important problems of Smith’s article, like how he deems it inappropriate to call people out for being wrong, or how he emphasizes the importance and immutable nature of his perspective over my own, or how he is condescending to those who are hurt; or how his claim that PIMC’s anonymity protects people, when those whom it protects already benefit from the protection of society, is a misuse of the concept.

However, it is not my job to educate: The project of demonstrating my right to exist at this University has been undertaken and completed. I encourage people who genuinely seek information to seek it on their own time, rather than presume to borrow mine. And should I choose to engage, consider that I will use my terminology, my beliefs, and my perspective for a reason, rather than insist blindly on your conception of “neutral.”  The conception of, insistence on, and reliance on “neutral discourse” is yet another problem—not a serious solution.

Marley Lindsey is a third-year in the College majoring in history.