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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

how outrage proves essential

It's a shame when good writing gets lost in the shuffle of the social calendar: many people are too busy celebrating the end of finals or already jet-setting to their intersession destinations to pick up the Crimson and see what a couple of insightful columnists had to share.

Henry Seton, famed mastermind of the Big Question weekly discussion group, attempts to jolt us out of our end-of-civilization fatalism by reminding us that we'll never fundamentally change a world that we accept at face value:
Blind optimism is perhaps the surest route to true pessimism; hope alone will leave us, in the end, with mere hopelessness. But an educated, critical hope is essential to transforming our world, and if we relinquish it, we relinquish our humanity as well. There are simply too many untested feasibilities, possibilities for a more just world, for us to simply accept the present as our infinite future.
The U.S. has often been called an 'experiment,' and while we may abhor some of the calculations and manipulations involved in establishing our nation and developing and maintaining its power and dominance, we can still salvage some small bit of happy strength from the legacy of "educated, critical hope" that served the rag-tag confederacy through its tumultuous beginnings. (more in expanded post)

The experiences of white people (primarily wealthy white men) in that particular (and peculiar) colonial history have helped to teach us that critical hope for change doesn't come from simply assessing the world and imagining that it can be better. The kind of hope we need in order to change the status quo is a hope born not only of imagination, but of outrage. We need to be truly outraged with poverty and injustice before we will take real, creative, courageous steps toward changes we envision.

However, as Henry points out, outrage is sedated when we "take cowardly comfort in the fiction of our own powerlessness." I think that outrage, especially regarding injustice, is also especially sedated at Harvard for three other reasons.

One, because people believe that they have independently earned the privilege this education affords them, so in theory it's possible for any other bright, motivated person to earn it, too. It's more difficult to be outraged with a status quo which one has mastered to a large degree (in other words, of which one has been a beneficiary). Not impossible, but more difficult.

Two, because people at Harvard are often so consumed with bedazzlement at the vastness of knowledge and theories of the way the world works that we forget to always apply the knowledge critically to our world and ourselves. We may think that this step will come later, when we are more expert in our field. We forget that we have the right--and the responsibility--to be outraged now, to begin envisioning now, knowing that we have more questions than answers, but struggling nonetheless.

And three, because, unlike in the days of the Boston Tea Party, or even today in certain parts of Boston, we at Harvard today lack a clear opponent toward which to be outraged. It's all well and good to be incensed by poverty and injustice, but it's a lot easier to maintain that resentment if there's someone to blame for it (at least that's the way it works for most of us in this culture). And the thing is, if there were any opponent to rail against, it would be ourselves--or, I should say, the projections of ourselves in a decade or more. We are (at least we're told we are) "tomorrow's leaders;" we are the elite. And if we don't begin cultivating outrage and educated, critical hope now, we are doomed to be the adumbration of merely another installment of tepid leaders sitting atop the hierarchical heap, failing people even as we brilliantly navigate the political slaloms laid out for us. We are not yet sufficiently outraged.

Well, I take that back--at least some of us are. Giving Harvard University its semester report card for performance in social responsibility, a critically hopeful Mike GW had this to say:
So [the fall semester] was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. Among the worst, because some administrators still don’t get that they’re running an open-minded university, not a business or a branch of the government. Among the best, because students are actually paying attention and holding people in power accountable.
Mike outlines some of the major tests of social responsibility Harvard has faced since September, including "Dignity and respect for workers," "Civil liberties and student privacy," and "Diversity and nondiscrimination." Check it out, agree, disagree, or both. May something in it ruffle one or two of your feathers.


At 12:58 AM, Anonymous Thelonious said...

As someone who self-identifies with the far left here on the west coast, I find it both surprising and refreshing to read such a critical, thoughtful, and genuine voice coming out of a place like Harvard.

Your words speak truth and are poignant without being demogogical, a balance that is largely missing among the radical advocates here in California.

Knowing that people like you are there to offer an authentic voice for social justice gives me hope for the future. Thank you for your words.


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