Floating up on the cloud somewhere in the electromagnetic waves of transmission signals, a debate rages. It sizzles and crackles as it is relayed between the obedient satellites and the flashing pixels of my laptop’s LCD screen, bringing with it provocative headlines, hastily assorted opinions and unrelenting commentary on flavor-of-the-day issues. The menu consists of a garden-variety of “isms,” ranging from race to sex to class, and perhaps sprinkled with a seasoning of pure bigotry.
Summer had taken the “social justice warrior” scene of Stanford’s campus straight to the coddles of the internet. Now, entrenched in week six of Autumn quarter, the SJW, or Social Justice Warrior, debate has only grown as Stanford’s activist population shifts things into full gear, a bit slowly and rustily, but nevertheless head-on. My fellow students have posted about the portrayal of a trans woman by a cisgender man in the upcoming film “The Danish Girl” (calling for trans characters to be played strictly by trans actors) and debated the role of the American economy (criticizing the capitalist system and labeling the nation an oligarchy). As a student body, we’ve tackled climate change politics, institutionalized racism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Stanford has always been a place that engenders discussion on a general smorgasbord of topics. This is one of the things I love most about the place — the diversity that begets awareness. Yet as I peruse comments and listen to perspectives throughout campus, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the specifics — the terminology and nuances of the everyday going-ons that are targeted. Yes, there may be problems with cis versus trans portrayal, but aren’t actors supposed to play characters with traits they don’t necessarily possess? Isn’t that what acting is? In a curious way, even though many issues sprout up into the public eye, discussion about them is hindered because of the diversity that brought them up in the first place. It seems that no matter what stance is taken, someone is always going to take offense.
If you’ve ever read any sort of article on the stand-up comedy scene at college campuses, you’ll know that there are certain well-known comedians (i.e. Jerry Seinfeld) who refuse to join the college circuit anymore. Why? College students tend to be so sensitive with regards to social issues that even some light-hearted humor, with the purpose of making these issues known, accessible and relatable, is taken as direct insult. Instead of promoting dialogue, we are focusing on political correctness to the point of self-censorship.
Of course, there is a difference between a few calculated jokes and the constant, arguably uninformed, jabs of Donald Trump. But there is something unquestionable about such bold claims: they make headlines. They generate discussion. They bring issues to the public eye. With only silence and cautious statements, there would be no awareness, which is the key to actually changing things about the world.
In some cases, taking offense at words targeting a specific group can undeniably be merited, particularly if there is legitimate malice behind them. But more often than not, we adopt an approach of hushed tones and enforced silence, slathering a heavy sugarcoating onto our image of the way social issues are actually being talked about in society. We listen to news stories, hear the perspectives of our peers, and then go home and put on masks, morphing into the mother who insists that “everything’s okay, dear” to her worried, wide-eyed child. Racism, for example, is real and tangible, but brushing every race-based comment under its encompassing rug does nothing to push forward any sort of progress on the issue. The real offense is that we are only breeding our own ignorance with this kind of quiet, tiptoed attitude, and exhausting those who attempt to dig down into the root causes of these societal issues.
This is something that has particularly gnawed on me during my time at Stanford, which is why I decided to write my first opinions piece about, well, opinions. As a student body that is generally more-informed than the average American, we spread ourselves far and wide in terms of the issues that are discussed on campus, yet nothing seems to really be accomplished. First of all, there is only a certain amount of bandwidth a person has in terms of actually caring about something. And secondly, we spend too much of our time being insulted to really dive into the issues that mock our modern society, let alone do anything to promote real change.
While a cautious mindset has its place in the generation of dialogue, so does speaking one’s thoughts. We may already be open-minded, now we just need to be more open.
Contact Amara McCune at amccune2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.