Missouri, Yale, and the Power of Pluralism

I remember the fourth night of freshman orientation week at Haverford College vividly: our Customs Team (upperclassmen who’d signed up to mentor my group of incoming freshman for the year) led us solemnly to a suite in the senior dorm, which we discovered was dimly lit with candles and sparsely populated with rolls of toilet paper. Apparently, they anticipated some tears that night.

We piled in silently and warily, and they began to lead us in the process of pluralism, where we would share the deepest, most emotional stories of our lives with these people we’d only just met. I was horrified; never before had I been asked to listen to the pain of strangers, let alone been given the chance share my own.

My team set the stage: we needed to share one at a time and honor the speaker with silence before somebody else was moved to start speaking. We were not to respond directly to the speaker or debate his or her experience. After all, pluralism was not a process designed to discern “right” from “wrong”–it was a process designed to facilitate a deeper understanding of the multiple lived experiences in the room, of the beauty of variety that existed organically in our Customs group, and of the likeness of our humanity that far outweighed our differences. I went into that room playing the roles that I usually do in front of new people; skeptical of the merits of this activity, and I came out feeling humbled, a little uncomfortable, and a lot more connected to my peers.

I think back to the meaning of pluralism now, when I read about the diatribes and death threats being exchanged between all parties involved in the upheavals at University of Missouri and Yale over the past two weeks. And this time, instead of aligning with the outrage on the left, I find myself caught between the intellectual crossfires of the “liberals” and the “conservatives”, the colored students and the white students, the “oppressed minority” and the “privileged.”

As a young, heterosexual, able-bodied, woman of Indian American heritage, I’ve been on both sides of the coin of ignorance and awareness. As a racial minority and female growing up in the United States, I’ve certainly noticed the moments that I was in a room full of whites, or men, or worse; the moments when both of those harsh realities would converge, and men would make intrusive assumptions and judgments about my race in an effort to impress me with their “knowledge of Indian women.” I’m also guilty of sometimes being insensitive to the injustices faced by homosexual or transgender men and women because I am a member of the dominant groups with regards to gender and sexuality. I hope it’s not too callous, then, to say that I understand both sides of this story–what it’s like to be marginalized and aware, and what it’s like to be the majority and ignorant, and what it’s like to be judged in both situations.

As a “double agent”, here’s my guess as to the collective psyches of the groups in conflict: students of color have endured racial insensitivity in the manner of witnessing “black face” Halloween costumes, being excluded from “white girls only” frat parties, and coming home to highly inappropriate posters of lynching on their bedroom doors. Reported aggressions either went unacknowledged or were directly discouraged by the administration at both universities, and their silence only aggravated feelings of shame and betrayal felt by students whose experiences and needs have fallen to the margins of their mostly white college campuses, and country.

On the other side of the argument are mostly white students and faculty, some of whom feel entitled to their offensive prejudices and actions without giving them a second thought, which I find to be incredibly self-absorbed and obtuse.

But I’m also willing to bet that some of these students have jumped on the bandwagon as a result of encounters with self-righteous and equally insensitive proponents of “social justice.” I’ve personally witnessed this specific breed of student–although few and far between–having attended a leftist, liberal arts college. They accuse and demonize conservative students, often for their ignorance, and sometimes for holding their conservative views, without allowing any room for discussion, mutual understanding, or growth. I’m willing to bet that the shame and humiliation that some of these conservative students felt upon these exclusionary encounters discouraged them from wanting to empathize with anyone but their like-minded peers.

On both sides of the equation are humans who have experienced shame, powerlessness, and fear at one point or another in their lives. I have to admit that all of us can empathize with those feelings; they are universal to anyone who’s ever been a child, and who’s experienced the shame of being silenced by parents, the fear of being humiliated by peers, or the powerlessness of being shut down by teachers, coaches, or any other “authority figures” in our lives. We reacted to these situations with the only tools we had: anger, sadness, or disappointment. Most likely, in return, we received an even harsher, more condescending response from the adults in our lives who were treated similarly by the adults before them, and so on. And we learned at a very young age that emotions are bad; emotions are dangerous and vulnerable and should be avoided at all costs.

Therein lay the problem: we have grown so accustomed to shunting our own feelings to the side that we can’t stand the thought of validating them in another. We say nasty things about each other when it comes to emotions, using words like “crybaby”, “emotional”, and “sensitive” in the most demeaning of ways. In the world of academia, in particular, we hide behind the facades of objectivity and rationality, and worship them as the only valid methods of discerning Truth–singular and with a capital T. We draw the line at our belief in free speech, without evaluating the merits of conscientious speech, and we all lose the opportunity to learn about the complexities of our own and others’ lived experiences as a result.

What we have learned instead in a culture that largely disregards, and even devalues [read: fears] emotions, is to reject an integral part of ourselves. In response, we justify rejecting a plea to at least consider the feelings of others by reflecting on Halloween costume choices that reduce an entire race of people to light entertainment. I remember the age-old teacher’s maxim, “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” But it’s as if we’re saying, “Other people have treated me poorly, and that’s just life. So I will treat others poorly as well.” And it is frighteningly easy to become resentful of someone that refuses to normalize their mistreatment and suffering when we have grown accustomed to normalizing our own.

I propose a radical solution that we–all of us–courageously confront our own past and present suffering. I propose that we give our pain the attention it deserves, and I suspect that when we recognize the pain in ourselves, we will recognize the same in others, whether we are white or colored, rich or poor, privileged or not. I propose that we create space for pluralism, as my orientation leaders did at Haverford,  so we can share our whole selves and admit that we are more alike than we are different in our human fragility.

Maybe, just maybe, we can start to honor the multiplicity of truths that make up our subjective human experiences. Maybe, just maybe, we can come together and begin to accommodate each other in the midst of our suffering. Maybe then will we believe it a little more possible to end the cycles of mistreatment and self-rejection that we have come to accept in this world. And maybe then will we make room for ourselves, and each other, and the wholeness of our humanity.




“Our Loss of Wisdom” and Finding Value in All Work

When I first watched Barry Schwartz’s TED talk, “Our loss of wisdom“, during my senior year at Haverford, I was searching for some sort of validation for my life choices. Growing up in a majority Indian (and Chinese) community in Princeton, New Jersey, I’d been conditioned to think that there were only a few acceptable ways to add value to the world: as a doctor, as an engineer, as a businessman, and maybe as a lawyer; and by my senior year at Haverford, I was on track to pursue none of these.

My community places such a high value on these occupations over others, perhaps because they tend to bring in a lot of money, or because they’re generally held in high-esteem in our society, or because they require years and years of education, or all of the above.

I think it is safe to say that the Indian mentality towards choosing careers is pretty formulaic. On the extreme ends, it sounds like “Do what I tell you to do, do it really well, and don’t ask questions.” There’s little to no room for experimentation, exploration, improvisation, risk-taking, or failure, because the path has been pre-destined for you by your parents. Barry Schwartz, talking about rules and bureaucracy in American education, law, and financial dealings, immediately reminded me of the Indian mentality (towards life in general, but especially careers), when he said:

What happens is that as we turn increasingly to rules, rules and incentives may make things better in the short run, but they create a downward spiral that makes them worse in the long run. Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations. And moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing…Scripts like these are insurance policies against disaster, and they prevent disaster, but what they ensure in its place is mediocrity.

Of course, I’m not implying that it’s mediocre to become a doctor or a lawyer or a banker, either because you want to, or because your parents absolutely won’t have it any other way. I recognize that every one of us is fighting our own battles and coming to terms with our life situations, and balancing parental expectations might be in more of the forefront for some people than for others. What I am saying is that no job can be performed skillfully without empathy and practical wisdom, and that these virtues can be just as easily emulated by a hospital janitor as by a doctor.

Barry Schwartz goes on to give examples of hospital janitors who, when asked to describe what makes their job difficult, described how they sometimes bent the rules in the service of empathy and compassion. He defines practical wisdom as the following:

Practical wisdom…is a combination of ‘moral will’ and ‘moral skill.’ A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule, as the janitors knew when to ignore their job duties in the service of other objectives…a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise; to try new things, occasionally to fail, and to learn from your failures.

The janitors that were interviewed had immense wisdom about what it means to take care and serve other people, despite the fact that theirs and other trade and service workers’ roles are so often diminished in our society for being “less than.” When I watched this talk, and when I think about the meaning of being of service to others, it becomes nonsensical in my mind that one act of service could ever be judged as greater than another; that treating patients as a doctor is thought of as better than cleaning up after patients and their families as a janitor.

A few weeks ago, I was indulging in my first ever nail appointment for a cousin’s wedding. The women there took such good care of me (and of my feet, which no one wants to touch); taking great pains to do my nails thoroughly and perfectly, massage my hands and calves, and help me move around without smudging anything. I just remember feeling a wave of gratitude wash over myself for being attended to so carefully and intentionally by another human being, and I wondered if others saw the great value in their simple gestures to care for the women that walked into their salon. Beauticians, after all, aren’t usually lauded in our society in the same way as white collar professionals, and yet they make a living out of treating people well. And ultimately, in life, it is how much we can empathize and care for and be of service to others that adds value to the world. And celebrating these moral exemplars–as Schwartz calls them–and emulating their ways, can restore a world in which we see the value in all kinds of work, and where everyone has an equally significant spot.

So you don’t need to be the next Bill Gates or Mahatma Gandhi to add value to the world, articulated here at the end of his TED talk:

So there’s a lot here at TED and at other places to celebrate, and you don’t have to be a mega hero. There are ordinary heroes–ordinary heroes like the janitors, who are worth celebrating, too. As practitioners, each and every one of us should strive to be ordinary, if not extraordinary, heroes…because the truth is, that any work you do that involves interaction with other people is moral work, and any moral work depends upon practical wisdom.

And how to we get practical wisdom? Stop judging others, firstly–and secondly, gain experience, improvise–break the rules and fail, learn from your mistakes. You can be sure that the hard lessons you learn along the way will serve you, and the people you work with, in whatever you do next.