Disturbing signs: what is really behind the destruction?

It looks like the “Whose responsibility is it?” project is achieving its goal of breaking up the apathy that prevails on the Williams campus. The barrage of speakers, discussions, posters, installations and other tactics have gotten the college community talking about the difficult issues of social responsibility on a level I have never before witnessed here. This I consider a major accomplishment. Despite its great importance, discussion can only take us so far. The exchange has so inspired some people that they have moved into the realm of action, a tremendously important step. Why, just this past weekend one or more budding activists took it upon themselves to violently dismember some signs intended to highlight global and local issues of social injustice.

To what do we attribute this destructive act? The motive, if one exists, is far from clear. This in itself points to a significant problem; the vandalism short-circuits the discourse vital to addressing the matters the project raises. If people have problems with the project, they should voice them through one or all of the many channels available (campus publications, response boards posted around campus, emailing “whose-responsibility-is-it@wso.williams.edu, talking with anybody). Destruction accomplishes nothing other than providing fodder for speculative op/ed pieces raising disturbing questions.

Suppose the vandalism was a somewhat conscious act. Why do some people feel great hostility towards the project? In part, I suspect, because they resent (and partially believe) the accusation they feel implicit in the project: “it’s your fault, you vile human being.” The project seems to have touched a raw nerve. In fact, the organizers of the project don’t mean “whose responsibility is it?” as a rhetorical question. They aim to open a discussion and welcome criticism of their own positions. Be that as it may, people resent the feeling they are being told what to do. They resent required classes, required work and required social consciousness. I attribute this to two causes.

First, people jealously guard their autonomy under the delusion that this autonomy really exists in the first place. The fact is that none of us arrived at our moral orientation in a vacuum; parents, peers and institutions have molded our every facet. We cling to habits and values we have inherited but never taken the time to thoroughly examine. Nevertheless, the myth of self-reliance prevails, one part of a constellation of beliefs with pernicious consequences. If we are all self-made, after all, then the answers to social ills are as simple as pulling up on ones bootstraps, certainly not requiring any help from the likes of us.

The other reason people resent the project is their reluctance to take on more work than they already have. (The impolitic way to say this is “people are lazy.”) The first line of defense is silencing people who attempt to make a claim on your time, especially a moral one. The second line of defense is to demand they tell you what to do if they manage to persuade you that you ought to do something. This explains why, after calls for silence, one of the most common criticisms of the project is that it fails to offer concrete actions for ameliorating the problems it points out, i.e., it doesn’t tell people what to do. Apparently people will sacrifice their autonomy if they can save some energy in the deal.

I understand that some people don’t mean, “what should we do?” as a rhetorical question. But I believe that many of the social problems this project addresses exist, at least in part, because for too long people have been lazily doing what they’re told: consuming, looking out for #1, pledging allegiance to the flag, et cetera. The beginning of a solution is showing some initiative and exerting some real autonomy while recognizing the profound interdependence of people everywhere.

Perhaps the vandals don’t resent the project but the people organizing it. We can safely assume (maybe) nobody knocked down signs because they hate the poor people of the Northern Berkshires or underpaid garment workers around the world. But by cutting off the flow of information and discussion, this destruction harms the underprivileged the project aims to benefit much more than it harms the organizers.

This is a rather subtle distinction requiring some clear-headed thinking. That said, I must admit that the vandalism could well have been the work of some drunk(s). People get drunk and destroy things, a time-honored Williams tradition, so people say don’t get all worked up about it. In the context of this project, however, this tradition takes on an alarming significance: it demonstrates the danger that people intoxicated with their privilege pose to their surroundings. What will we do about it?