April 27, 2014

CASTLE | The Politics of Reasonability

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There has been a flurry of political activity on campus lately and it seems everyone has something to say about it. Two excellent columns recently critiqued and rejected the prevailing but impossible imperative to resolve “divisiveness” through “dialogue.” What I’m interested in thinking about is the larger phenomenon this imperative is a part of, along with expectations to respect “democratic process” and the like. What I want to call the “politics of reasonability” is deeply tied to respectability politics. Respectability politics refers to a set of unwritten rules regarding behavior, speech, culture and all other forms of self-representation by marginalized people in order to make themselves more legible, or more human, to people in power. Like racism and patriarchy, the politics of respectability has been interwoven into this country’s history since the first European men landed on the shores of America and encountered people they saw as less than human. The practice of dehumanization has always been central to the American project, allowing the nation’s founders to feel justified in committing two of the greatest genocides in history. Because of the duration, visibility and egregious violence of slavery and the enduring history of dehumanization, manifestations of respectability politics are perhaps most noticeably tied to black history. I would argue, however, that iterations of respectability politics are familiar to most marginalized people, whether marginalization happens on the basis of gender identity, ethnicity, sexuality, falling below an imaginary line drawn somewhere right around “middle class” or some combination of these or other markers of difference.

The logic of respectability politics is at the core of why, in my mother’s multilingual household, she and her siblings were taught to speak only English, which was no one’s first language. It’s the reason why, when I called my dad to tell him I met with some of our Trustees about hate crimes and sexual assault on campus, the first thing he said was, “Were you rational or did you get emotional?” It’s why, as much as I hate it and as much as I know better, I feel a momentary pang of something like shame when I notice the way my loved ones don’t always fit in at formal occasions. It’s why, as a freshman at Cornell, I used to say I wasn’t hungry instead of telling my floormates I couldn’t afford to go out to dinner — or that I thought using a parent’s credit card to go out to eat several times a week is a garish display of unearned wealth.

To survive at a place like Cornell — to get here in the first place — we have all learned to act and talk a certain way. If we didn’t have the right conditioning by the time we got to campus, Cornell offers no shortage of social discipline. Like most elite institutions, it is a finishing school in its own right (re: professional-development, networking experience, business casual, etc.) Respectability politics is what necessitates “code-switching” even on a campus of clearly literate and competent people; it’s why women, even in the Ivy League, or perhaps especially because they are in the Ivy League, are made to mind their wardrobe choices and expressions of emotionality. We all feel the pressure of normativity and in being here, we all conform to some degree.

This is not to assume or say anything about “authenticity,” a term I despise. Though, I do think that in the liberal context of “diversity” discourse, filled with depoliticized euphemisms, “realness” can be an asset insofar as it can be commodified and non-threatening. Regardless of what it might do to our sanity, balancing respectability and realness can be our double-edged sword. This might not be everyone’s weapon of choice, but going in defenseless is not an option. Of course, there are limitations — not necessarily because there is a right and wrong way to perform this act, but because the game is fixed to begin with.

Even if you do everything right — go through all the proper channels, speak with perfect grammar, meet every deadline and rub elbows with all the right people, all that — sometimes you still can’t win. Of course you can’t always get what you want — it’s a tough world — but it seems to be tougher for some than it is for others. And that’s the issue: power protects power. When playing by the rules doesn’t work, when the game reveals itself to be unwinnable (save for a few conditional exceptions) what’s to stop us from calling bullshit and flipping the game board? I can think of a few answers to this question:

1) The lure of becoming that exceptional being, if only you work hard enough.

2) Fear of retribution, fear that things will end up worse off or fear that nothing will change.

3) Inertia. We are so disciplined and so well-trained to respect authority that challenging the status quo is painted as disrespectful and doing so in a blunt manner is seen as simply unreasonable.

As an example, let’s take the recent suppression of Resolution 72. Everybody seemed to know that what happened in the Student Assembly meeting that day was wrong. When I wrote against it, I was thanked — even the worst comment trolls remained silent. The Daily Sun editorial board agreed that the S.A. should have “listened first” before tabling the resolution. But, when we took over the S.A. meeting the next week and invited the resolution’s sponsors to speak along with a number of other students who felt unheard and unrepresented on campus, they disapproved of our “drastic measures” and argued students should go through proper channels to have their voices heard — ironically, between these two conflicting editorials, they praised the important history of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover for its anniversary. As annoying as this inconsistency is, it’s not unexpected. I know Cornell students aren’t used to disruptions or publicly challenging authority, but it’s a healthy part of political engagement. Shaming students for demonstrating doesn’t make us better than our rowdier peers, it makes us impotent and shows us for what we are, cowardly. The authority worship here is stifling — 30 minutes of one man’s time is not more valuable than the existence and voices of entire groups of students. I think the takeover did campus some good. We’ve already learned to walk, talk and dress for success. When injustice still happens, despite our best efforts, we must be allowed to correct it. Even those that benefit from the status quo suffer from a passionless campus. We could use a little more chaos around here.