The Dickinsonian

A Difficult Time

Crispin Sartwell, Associate Professor of Philosophy

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I’d invite today’s social justice warriors on campus to think a bit about what and who they’re protesting against and why. In a nation bedeviled throughout its history and right now by systemic racism, a nation of mass racial incarceration and police violence, a nation of chronic economic and educational inequality, today’s movement for racial justice is focused on . . . a teenager’s Halloween costume? Let’s say that’s not where the problem is, and you are making your own movement and indeed your own situation appear to be extremely trivial. Back in the day, social justice warriors fought the powers that be. Now they pick out one relatively powerless college student and whip him with their displeasure. Well, that’s an easier victory, anyway.

It’s hard to change power structures, but it’s easy to change symbols. And it’s hard to intimidate policemen or presidents, but it’s easy to pick out one of your peers and ostracize him and turn him into a scapegoat. Even in this era, we do need to hold on to some sort of distinction between symbols and realities. No one has ever been shot to death with a toy gun. If you think that wearing a Kaepernick costume is itself an act of violence, I suspect you have never experienced violence. People are not being oppressed by words and pictures, they are being oppressed by handcuffs and jail cells, by employment discrimination, by environmental injustice.

This is a lesson that really ought to have been absorbed by now. Since the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the symbols have changed almost entirely. That movement, as well as the feminism of that and later periods, focused to some extent on the words people were using, for example. Many white people came to think that the essence of racism was the racial slur: they edited it out of their conversations and even their heads. They learned how not to talk like racists, and they took that to mean that they weren’t racists. And the systemic racism simply continued under the blanket of pablum. Ever-new euphemisms or generations of approved vocabularies had, roughly, no effect whatever.

Harvey Weinstein, for example, holds very correct liberal political positions. He may well have learned not to call women ‘chicks’ or even ‘girls.’ There is no reason whatever that he couldn’t talk like a feminist and be an abuser. Indeed, talking right might have been a relatively effective camouflage for the brutal sexist abuse he was in fact inflicting. You could have a whole society that talks like Obama and acts like Weinstein; perhaps we do, more or less, here and there.

Trying to change a culture’s vocabularies and symbol systems is one thing, ineffective though it is, but picking out particular people who violate your symbolic standards and holding them responsible for the whole history of racist violence is brutal and absurd. I think you’re looking for extremely easy victims and extremely superficial solutions. I think you are confusing living in a world of comforting fictions, constructed by constraining everyone’s expression, with living in a just world. I think you want to play ‘let’s pretend’ and force everyone else to play too.

Of course, I am aware of who is speaking: I’m a white guy, pushing 60. If you think that mine is not the sort of voice you should be listening to on this, or if you connect my arguments with my identity and disqualify them or me on that basis, I understand why that makes sense. Like a lot of professors, I’m a chronic mansplainer, but I do want to listen as well as talk.

So I say this as me and for what it’s worth, but I do say it: it’s been a ‘difficult’ time, a traumatic time, a time calling for dialogue, reflection, therapeutic intervention, etc. etc. Excuse me, but we are talking about one dude’s Halloween costume. Get real.

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14 Responses to “A Difficult Time”

  1. crispy on November 9th, 2017 11:47 am

    I wrote this a week ago. Were I writing now, I would add that I’ve found Dean Bylander’s communications on these matters extremely unfortunate. While holding out for due process, she practically, publicly convicts the students in question not only of violating community standards but in some extremely obscure sense (‘signaling a narrative’) for the whole history of racism. Such responses are fantastical.

  2. Pissed alumna on November 10th, 2017 10:41 am

    What’s it like being literal scum of the earth? These are not social justice warriors these, are Black students on campus, (whom you called “idiots” on your personal blog for supporting Hillary, something a lot of Black people did begrudgingly due to her and her husband’s past actions against the African American community), who literally do not feel safe that these historically violent symbols are having a resurgence in the country and now on campus. You have never had their best interest at heart and that makes you terrible at your job and as a human being.

  3. David Durstewitz '10 on November 13th, 2017 9:51 pm

    Crispin – I appreciate your attention to the bigger structural issues; that’s sorely lacking at Dickinson, as I’m sure you’ve said elsewhere (though for some reason not here?). So what makes you think that not tolerating a smaller instance of white supremacy detracts from our actions and sentiments against larger instances of white supremacy? Do you really believe that a school that tolerates blackface is more likely to disinvest from prison labor?

    You’re right, you do come across as comfortable here – that’s there in your words, I don’t need to know your demographics. I bet your intentions are good, but here you are condescending to students for trying to fight an unjust system that you profit from, whether you criticize it or not. If you’re an ally or an accomplice, great, but you’re not being one here. Do better. You’re in a better position to undermine white supremacy than most undergrads, so do that, and let us know how you’re doing that; then thank them for doing what they can from their position, and support and make way for their further empowerment against bigger targets.

    Is these frats boys’ entitlement the worst part of white supremacy? No, but it’ll get that way quick if it’s not checked.

  4. Alum on November 13th, 2017 10:43 pm

    So…the school can have some ‘black face’ for marketing but we can’t do ‘black face’ for Halloween?

    Get over it. It’s Halloween.

  5. 2016 Graduate on November 14th, 2017 3:19 am

    The irony that Dr. Sartwell is a Philosophy Professor but refuses to further analyze the message beyond a photo highlights that he should not be teaching Dickinson students philosphy at all. He does not encompass Dickinson liberal arts education at all.

    1. The ability to be empathetic: This photo is offensive to African Americans PERIOD. A person’s race is not a costume. A Dickinson professor should know this, teach this. And DEFEND THIS.

    2. It is a photo: if you have ever taken a history class, there are numerous characteristics you can dissect from a photo. It is not just a Halloween picture. A student is holding a gun to another student’s head who is knowingly representing an entire class of people. Dickinson students are taught to analyze and dissect information even if it is given to them like a simple form like a photo. If a Professor is teaching students to jump to conclusions or is teaching students to “take a step back and excuse stupidity” then he is teaching young adults not to challenge progressive thought.

    3. This Professor is dismissing the socioeconomic and racial context of the photo. Something in which a PHILOSOPHER should never ignore.

    4. A Professor looks out for the well being of all students. This photo indicates violence on a race of people; if a Professor wants to defend that in the name of free speech, he has no place teaching Dickinson students because it is evident that he does not hold the moral values Dickinson has taught me.

    5. He has a history of bigotry behavior, has been suspended before.

  6. 2016 Graduate on November 14th, 2017 4:35 am

    Tired rant over

  7. Michal Burgunder on November 14th, 2017 5:09 am

    I’ve been seeing some very heavy criticism of this piece. Let’s see… A philosophy professor (whose job it is to write challenging pieces) writes a short article on symbols and power structures. He is an anarchist philosopher, so his views will undeniably be against those that are established. He makes an intelligent comment on a cultures vocabulary and challenges students to see further, to fight against the racist power structures rather than just “one dude’s halloween costume”. To me, this sounds like a call for ambition, a call to fight racist power structures, rather than a single halloween costume (which in the end will be far more effective than getting caught up over halloween costumes)

  8. David Durstewitz '10 on November 17th, 2017 2:32 pm

    Anarchists hold ourselves to higher standards than this. Crispin’s thinking here is comfortable and elemtary. Check the comments below for good critique. Condescension from a place of comfort can’t do much to dismantle white supremacy.

  9. Marcus DeFuria on November 14th, 2017 7:26 am

    I think the real scum is the alumnus who is too afraid to enter their own name and capitalizes the term ‘black.’ At least the author has the ‘audacity’ to attach his name to what will likely be a controversial piece, perhaps even costing his job due to Dickinson’s abundance of people like you and your fear of controversial opinions (to the extent where you deny others’ humanity!).

    Hope the real world is working out for you!

  10. Pissed Alumnus on November 16th, 2017 5:14 pm

    LOL good one dude. Ya got me.

  11. Marina Butler on November 14th, 2017 11:38 pm

    If you are unable to see how a community member making light of shooting a black person is representative of a dangerous mindset that could potentially lead to the physical harm of black community members and invoke a fear within them that is damaging to their mental and emotional well-being, you are a part of the problem and the community is not safe with you in it. Furthermore, if you are capable of seeing the privilege you have as a white man who has not shared the experiences of black people but then proceed to write a piece telling black people what should and should not upset them and what fights are or are not worth fighting for, then you are not only incapable of empathy, but you are willfully ignorant in that you know the harm your words hold and chose to express them anyway. You say you want us to be real but I see nothing more real than holding community members accountable for their actions in order to help prevent them from happening in the future. I see nothing more real than expressing the pain and exhaustion that comes with experiencing these incidents over and over again and still having to explain to people like you why allowing them to slide causes more harm to us than it ever could to the white people commiting these actions. It is irresponsible of us as members of the community to brush them aside and allow them to continue and it is even more irresponsible of you to use your power and privilege as a white man to speak out against the black members of this community by trivializing our experiences rather than hear our cries and show us support.

  12. Jeff Engelhardt on November 15th, 2017 9:10 am

    (I saw this only yesterday and read it this morning. Sorry for the late reply.)

    Is the movement *focused on* a teenager’s Halloween costume, as you say, or was that just what incited more visible protest activity recently ? Do you think that the Civil Rights movement in December 1955 was focused on bus seats? I was at a few of the discussions students organized in the week after Halloween (I didn’t see you there), and they didn’t talk much about Halloween costumes. They talked about a campus socially divided by race and class. They talked about threats of violence against students of color in Carlisle and police violence when they’re traveling between here and their homes. I didn’t hear anyone take it that the costume was the focus. Everyone there seemed to understand it as a symptom of and occasion to address the structural problems you think the students ought to be focused on.

    As for the feminist and anti-racist movements and their focus on language: yes, it’s quite bad that, as you point out, many white people came to think the essence of racism is the slur, and so they stopped using slurs but kept voting for officials who support violent police and mass incarceration; and, yes, one can talk like a feminist or an anti-racist and still be an awful abuser of women and people of color. But it’s uncharitable to think that the reason feminists and anti-racists starting talking about how we talk (but still also about what we do, of course!!!) was just to change the sounds we make. The idea is that language is one a medium of white supremacist and misogynist ideologies, and the aim is to change the ideologies that make, for example, white deaths from opioid use an epidemic that calls for treatment and prevention while Americans see black deaths from opioid use as a problem of criminality that calls for police “crackdowns”. The strategy came from dissatisfaction from having small changes in the law or government continually reversed by new generations who harbored ideals they didn’t recognize to be racist, sexist, etc. The hypothesis was that legal and governmental changes weren’t stopping the dominant ideologies/ways we talk from taking their effect on the minds of young people and thereby producing new voters, lawmakers, government officials, and citizens at every level who would support discriminatory practices, laws–the things you think are worth focusing on. So the idea in talking about language was to find a way to address the ideologies (while still also focusing on the things you care about of course!!!) to prevent any gains in the sorts of things you care about from being overturned, to help clear ways of thinking that would make the things you care about easier to recognize and address, and to bring more people to recognize the problems you care about at younger ages. Now, maybe you think this effort has failed. Fine, but if so, it’s not because it wasn’t focused on the things you care about.

  13. zachy g on November 15th, 2017 5:39 pm

    while the above comment from “pissed alumna” is clearly in violation of the dickinsonian’s comment policy (no. 3, specifically), i’d suggest it be allowed to remain because it is pretty funny.

    it brings to my mind the image of a scarf-clad twenty-something spitting out the contents of a kale smoothie all over the screen of her macbook pro as crispin’s opinion violently and relentlessly assaults her.

  14. Pissed Alumnus on November 16th, 2017 5:17 pm

    It got past the mods my dude, take it up with them. And while I don’t like kale I’ll be enjoying some peppermint mochas if you’d like to join. 😉

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A Difficult Time