I never understood why so many people claim to feel uncomfortable on the phone until I had to ask a hard-of-hearing seventy year old man for five grand, moments after he mentioned that he didn’t “feel right” about the Board officially doing away with Lord Jeff as the mascot.
During the month of February, forty other students and I worked for Amherst College’s Annual Fund as Phonathon callers. We reached out to alums and asked them to donate to the College in amounts ranging from fifty dollars to thousands. The mascot question came up a lot during our three hour shifts. All student callers received a script that included responses to common reasons alums would refuse to donate: It’s too bad that your grandson didn’t get into Amherst, The Board is working on a long-term coal divestment strategy, and Sorry that you lost your job, BUT––wouldn’t you like to donate a small amount nonetheless? But our Lord Jeff answer took the cake; it took up a couple large paragraphs, a page all its own. Our scripted responses were careful, diplomatic, nuanced––we tiptoed around our donors on the off chance that we’d lose some of them by saying how we really felt. Almost none of us meant the words we recited off the page.
The first I needed to use the scripted answer, it was for a self-professed “regular guy” in his mid-thirties who claimed during our brief call that he had been a fraternity brother, lacrosse player, and the old president of the Amherst College Young Republicans during his time at Amherst. With those credentials, it wasn’t hard to imagine what he meant by “regular”. It was like he was going down a list, checking off all the boxes for the stereotypical opponent of social justice as envisioned by our campus and fitting every shitty mold in the book. And his reason to protest the mascot switch was so perfectly obnoxious, too – he wouldn’t feel welcome at a place like Amherst, his kind of person wasn’t welcome there anymore, that’s what the College was saying, he and his fellow white men were under attack in this country. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing; it was impossible to see past the trope to the man lying underneath.
This sort of thing happened fairly often; other student callers tutted sympathetically or laughed quietly when they noticed a friend had been trapped on the phone with some nutbag or racist, old monster. If only, the attitude in the room screamed, we could tell these guys, these comic book villains, what we really thought about them.
Yet towards the end of Phonathon, I got another guy on the phone, who didn’t immediately attack the mascot change, but instead steered the conversation towards the need for fossil fuel divestment. For the sake of the nondisclosure forms we signed, let’s call him Bob. Bob claimed that he knew divestment from coal was possible because he had been one of the students to occupy Converse and picket outside the Trustees’ meeting in the 80s to protest College holdings in institutions that supported apartheid in South Africa. These days, Bob went on to say, he works mostly in the nonprofit sector, attempting to improve public policy for clean energy. I got the sense that I was talking to a minor liberal hero, one that could be called a “social justice warrior” without any trace of derisiveness or irony.
But then, as the phone call went on, Bob also told me that he wished the College had kept Lord Jeff. I was floored. I was fascinated. I had just heard rattle him off his liberal, ‘good guy’ credentials in the span of five minutes, but here he was, declaring aloud the taboo opinion so resoundingly rejected by myself and a enormous majority of other current students and faculty.
I had the impulse, immediately, to write Bob off as someone who I didn’t need to take seriously, only just resisting the urge to roll my eyes. Certain opinions are easy to dismiss, as are the people who espouse them, and this only seems right. The guy who defends murder or the institution of slavery is obviously not someone we want to speak on our campus or befriend or respect. There’s a reason that we condemn some forms of speech, those too pernicious or unintelligent to be worth anyone’s time.
But I think we extend this idea too far. I think we end up extending the hate we feel towards certain ideas, to the people who hold them, grow arrogant in our certainty that we know everything we need to know about a person based on the politics or opinions they spout off. It’s what we reduce people to, it’s what we define them as.
Billy? Oh, he’s like fine, but he doesn’t really believe in climate change, which really fucking pisses me off. Carla? She told me she’s voting for Marco Rubio––like, what the hell? Frank? He keeps pushing for that moose mascot, I swear to God, that kid is the worst.
I think we all have a problem. I think we don’t trust one another. And when it comes to anything that can be twisted into the political, angry suspicion replaces a friendlier, more forgiving, attitude. There is no assumption of goodwill or recognition that the people behind the ideas we disagree with are real people with their own experiences and lives that inform those decisions. And so we turn on one another, viciously, denying each other basic respect and thinking the worst of one another. This is hardly a problem that’s unique to Amherst; The Pew Research Center has argued that Americans are less trusting of those with different political opinions than themselves than at any point since the era of the Red Scare 1950s.
Countless studies suggest that social media has allowed us to remain in self-affirming bubbles and view any outside of them as the enemy, belonging to a different tribe. But maybe Amherst’s own bubble makes it an even more obvious problem for us than for the general population. On a campus swarming with well-intentioned progressives, we attack one another for not being progressive enough, feeling righteously justified: anyone who can be proven to be less liberal, less on the right side of history can be torn down. Purity tests always turn inwards and being only 90% on board with someone else’ sense of what is ‘right’ is the same as standing in the way.
A few weeks ago, the Peer Advocates’ ConsentFest was criticized in an Amherst Student article which claimed that ConsentFest, although well-intentioned, missed the point of sexual assault prevention and consent itself. Later, the author and a few others put on a rival event to ConsentFest, which took place at the same time, and which more thoroughly emphasized the seriousness of the issue and the stories of survivors, too. I don’t have the experience necessary to comment on which approach was ‘right’ and can only do my best to empathize with victims. But I still feel comfortable saying that calling the Peer Advocates’ efforts, as the Student article did, “faux-feminism” accomplished nothing save spicing up that sentence with an insult and hurting those who were just as earnestly attempting to combat rape culture. Righteous indignation feels wonderful, but everybody loses in a game of progressive one-upmanship.
Some speech is awful and terrible and can be equated to violence as it harms people or makes them feel unsafe, but we have to find the line between censuring hateful speech and censuring speech we disagree with and censuring the people who said either.
And, remember, getting along with one another now might be more important than ever — don’t forget that Trump is going to be an actual nominee for the US presidency. In the face of that horror show, now might be a good time for you to bury the hatchet with that friend who just can’t seem to #feelthebern (AKA that elitist, Clinton-supporting, neocon of a friend) — or maybe with the friend who won’t stop posting dank Bernie memes on your wall. A couple of the posts aren’t that unfunny, right?