Social justice activism in your own backyards?

by Peter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)

Another Year of Equity at Evergreen

The following email was forwarded to me and many other Evergreen faculty:

On [date deleted], students, staff and faculty of The Evergreen State College will hold a Re-Convocation Rally on Red Square to express and affirm their commitment to goals of equity, inclusion and success for all in pursuit of higher education. The rally is organized by Staff and Faculty Acting for Equity, a group that works in partnership with Evergreen students. Rally organizers stated that the “focus will be on healing from the events of last spring and celebrating our collective cultural wealth as the Evergreen community.” Evergreen community members and friends are invited to participate in an afternoon of speakers, music, dancing, discussion, and creative expression.

Staff and Faculty Acting for Equity said in a statement that “the Re-Convocation Rally will carry forward the community spirit and dedication to equity that motivates Evergreen. We believe that our success as members of a community is dependent not only on ourselves, but on the success of the most vulnerable. We acknowledge the particular strengths of and challenges faced by first-generation, Black and Brown, undocumented, Latinx, trans*, queer, veteran, and disabled students who have been traditionally underserved by higher education. We strive to center their voices as we move toward more equitable outcomes for all our students.”  (I deleted the date—PD)

Needless to say, I agree with nearly all the sentiments expressed here—until I come to the final sentence, which manages to pack, depending on how you count them, two-and-a-half to three untenable and politically destructive assumptions in just its first six words.

To begin, although the word “centering” has become commonplace in the language of a certain swath of the political spectrum, it offers a false metaphor for the space of social communication.  When it comes to a place like, say, a college campus, the notion of a center simply doesn’t apply.  The good folks of Staff and Faculty Acting for Equity, by their organizing and publicity, offer what you might call a node.  The college administration constitutes at least one more node, probably several if you think about all its various levels and units.  We have two unions, one for faculty, another for staff, and they are very nodal.  Of course, more important than all these are the myriad formal and informal clusters of students, staff and faculty who communicate intra- and cross-nodally.

This mis-metaphor is important because it implicitly invokes a zero-sum interpretation of voice.  If voice is arrayed around a single center, and only one point of view can be centered, then enhancing the voice of some requires decentering the voices of others.  As we’ve seen at Evergreen and elsewhere, the actual practices that accomplish this—discouraging or suppressing the voices that must give way for the center to be occupied by others—are rather nasty.  But public speech in most contexts, and certainly at a place like Evergreen, is not generally zero-sum.  Some do not have to speak less so others can speak more.*

That centering business really needs to be, um, decentered.

The second assumption is that the voices listed in the next-to-last paragraph share enough characteristics that it is even conceivable they could all be centered together.  If I say one thing and you say the opposite, how could both our voices occupy this same all-important discursive turf?  Or if they could, on what basis would we deny anyone else’s voice the same status?  No single identity-category is homogeneous; experiences and perspectives differ enormously across individuals.  Add to this the extraordinary diversity of the full list, and the notion of these voices constituting a center is meaningless.  The best you can say for this statement is that its authors want to express their support for many of the students on campus who need it the most, and this is how they try to say it.  If that’s all it is, I share their convictions (and I’ve struggled in my own way to try to put them in practice), but I can’t buy the idea that these groups speak with a common voice.

Incidentally, because racial, sexual and other categories encompass many viewpoints, the political assumption that there is a single viewpoint for each such group often leads to an unsavory process by which people in the majority, like whites, pick which organization or ideology represents the “true” expression of the oppressed.  When I read references at Evergreen to the need to support “the students”, I can infer that a particular subset of students has been elevated to this status.  As for me, I don’t consider it my business to decide who speaks for whom, ever.

The half-assumption I quarrel with is the notion that centering some voices by decentering others is at the center of the political agenda.  This isn’t exactly stated, so I can’t give it full noncredit along with the other two, but it’s there to the extent that no other political goal is put forward.  Of course, truly listening to others, especially those who have not gotten the hearing they merit, is very important.  It is not, however, the most important goal in political activism, or to put it differently, political expression is important mainly as a means and not as an end.  Evergreen has urgent equity needs, especially in its lack of services for students who come to it from the short end of America’s grotesque economic and educational inequality.  This is a matter of programs, staff and money.  It’s worth fighting for.  There may be other high priority equity issues, although we haven’t gathered the information we need to identify and understand them, which suggests that putting resources into serious self-study is also crucial.  Perhaps the social justice advocates at Evergreen share this position, and for them the focus on expression is just a step along the path.  I hope so, but there has been little evidence so far to support it.

So what’s the point of scrutinizing equity-speak in such detail?  Maybe I’m just being picky, but I’ve seen how misguided mental frameworks can lead to terrible political practices.  I also suspect that, while most readers who have made it this far may have scant interest in my strange but wondrous little institution, they see parallels with social justice activism in their own backyards.