‘Dragged out and shot:’ responses to a recent e-mail

Over the past week the situation surrounding the “Whose Responsibility Is It?” campaign has grown increasingly polarized. Responses tend to fall neatly into two visible categories. One, interested students, staff, faculty and community members have been attending lectures, discussions, movies, et cetera in record numbers and sharing their thoughts on opinion walls all over campus. Two, detractors have destroyed signs, ripped down posters, written narrow-minded messages on opinion walls, verbally assaulted those involved with the project and sent threatening e-mails.

One message was sent by a student to the project’s opinion-soliciting listserver stating, “I’m just going to be brutally honest here. Whose responsibility is it? NOT MINE!! I’m sick and tired of seeing all your crap all over campus. I’d like to see whoever’s brainchild this was dragged out and shot. Have a nice day.”

Before dealing with the way this was handled, the email itself merits a brief discussion. First, no coherent argument against the project or potential alternate program is put forth. Second, the transition from a denial of complicity to anger over the posters, et cetera is odd. If one can answer, in fact, “not mine,” which I feel a significant portion of the campus would like to assert, then why all the fuss? Third, and most important, the students decision to conclude with language that could very easily be interpreted as extremely threatening was an irresponsible call at best, a deeply troubling one at worst.

This email was forwarded to the projects internal listserver and then to many other campus groups. The student’s finger name was accidentally left in, the actual name deleted. This caused a backlash from the project’s detractors as well as some of its supporters as an unnecessary exposure of a peer’s identity. The student in question was understandably mortified as some recognized his/her fingername, but his/her humiliation is not something I personally feel concern over.

This embarrassment stems from the selfish, juvenile and violent content and tone of the message, which the student should either have the sense of honor to stand behind or the courage to reevaluate. It is difficult not to interpret the past weeks dissent-by-destruction as anything other than cowardly. Those of us who would like to see a real debate emerge are saddened by the methods many non-supporters are employing: ranging from the destructive to the satirical/sarcastic, rarely the serious and engaged. It is apparently much easier and more comfortable – two Williams watchwords – to attack anonymously than to criticize constructively or debate intelligently.

What interests me most about the entire episode is its illumination of just how upset and defensive much of the campus is in the face of photos of starving children, environmental disasters, victims of war, et cetera. This one particular student has received far more attention than he/she deserves, being treated more as an icon of the collective violence visited upon the project than as the writer of a single childish email. The campus-wide tendency this represents (albeit in a more extreme form) is what I think merits our attention.

When the campaign began, I had expected two main “camps” to develop: those who thought it was “their responsibility” and supported the project, and those who thought it was somebody else’s and consequently ignored the project. Instead, there seems to be two different groups all right, but both of whom see these issues as their problem: the first group above, and another that agrees it shares in the responsibility but is uncomfortable and angry that someone dared point this out publicly.

A slightly more sophisticated subset of this latter group is represented by the “This is all just talk. Why don’t you do something about it?” argument. One aspect of the campaign that I have been particularly pleased with is that it encourages us to think about their lives as parts of a greater whole, as a series of active choices having consequences far beyond the Purple Bubble. I would be much happier if we were able to change our attitudes and lifestyles by consuming only what we need, food, gas or electricity-wise, for example, than if each student adopted a pet “cause” or two to throw money at every now and again. With such goals in mind, discussion becomes key, part of the process, much more than “just talk.” Indeed, since we all seem to be in agreement as to “Whose Responsibility Is It?” (Why else all the frustration?), getting beyond the initial questions requires introspection followed by discussion.

The “Responsibility” project has, from its outset, encouraged discussion, particularly dissent. The right to disagree is certainly not in question; rather, it is the quality of that dissent that has been disappointing. Over 100 students have contributed their time, energy and talents to the project; this effort would seem to demand an equally considered response by way of counter-arguments. With this campaign we all have an amazing opportunity to learn from one another challenge one another and share with one another. There will be a Gaudino Forum tonight at 8:30 p.m. in Goodrich for us to talk. I hope to see you there.