Opposing views on the Social Responsibility Project

Ben Birney ’02 sent this email to the Responsibility Project’s listserver in light of the infamous “dragged out and shot” email. Following is a response from Patchen Mortimer ’00.

Ben Birney ’02

I don’t agree with [the original writer’s] particular choice of expressions, but I do agree with the general sentiment she/he is expressing.

Your group’s campaign seems to amount to nothing but a massive effort at guilt-tripping the entire campus. You’ve accumulated a large range of hugely complex issues, tossed them all in a pile, and screamed “You should all feel guilty about this” at all of us. None of us really understands the issues you’re talking with, and they don’t touch most of our everyday lives. I don’t think Williams students deserve to be made to feel guilty about things over which we haven’t even a tiny amount of control. Yes, people are scum. Every day, bad people in the world hurt other innocent people because they don’t understand any other way to make themselves feel good. There is absolutely nothing that your shrill, accusative posters can do to prevent this.

What you could do is to follow at least half of the old motto: Act Locally. And I do mean locally. Before we go off crusading to solve all the world’s problems all at once, we should take a good look at the Williams community. Ever notice how fractured we are? BSU, BGLTU, WARP, the Asian groups, the International community, the sports teams…we all live in our own little worlds, doing our own little things, and nobody really wants to interact with anyone else. Nothing productive is going to come out of this community until we can all trust and accept each other, and we don’t right now. Your campaign is only driving the wedge between us deeper; you have taken advantage of our political and social goodwill to make us feel attacked and forced us to all withdraw just a little bit more. Nobody who’s being attacked wants to embrace his attacker.

So why don’t you try a little more positive campaigning. Who knows, I might even come out for it – and you’d have a lot of clout indeed if you could get the pariah who put the “People are Scum” posters in Baxter and Bronfman to get off his duff.

I don’t want anyone dragged out into the street and shot, or even molested, for his/her opinions. But I think your campaign is a waste of time and valuable resources, and is hurtful and embarrassing to the campus community.

This is my opinion; forward it to anyone you see fit.

Patchen Mortimer ’00

But you missed the entire point of the campaign—one that I am not at all a part of, and in fact, voiced my objections to funding in one of the organizations I’m involved in (not because of the campaign itself, but because of the proposal process, lack of available money and my group’s role on campus). But take this informed outsider’s opinion:

As I understand it, the goal was to 1) create awareness of issues, 2) create dialogue of whatever sort, and 3) to get people to think about issues inside and outside this campus. All of which they’ve succeeded in. Keep in mind this campaign is not just about posters. There’s been a lecture almost every day, movies, speakers, rallies, multimedia displays in the library, etc. And your average Williams student wrote pretty much everything written on the posters, not the program coordinators, so it’s an honest expression of people’s thoughts, concerns and feelings.

To address your points specifically: 1) “guilt-tripping.” The campaign asks, “Whose responsibility is it?” Not one finger is pointed. If you say, “Not mine,” then it’s not your responsibility in your mind. Case closed. Those angered by guilt tripping have only guilt-tripped themselves. It wasn’t Gebre ’00, or Leatherman ’00 or anyone else. If you are upset by a poster, it’s because you feel you do have responsibility, and you are then reacting to the responsibility, the weight, the duty, you have placed on yourself. And maybe that will make you think.

Secondly: Acting “locally.” A part of the point was to get people to think locally and globally at the same time. And to understand that, in an international society, simple things like buying a banana or Ben & Jerry’s does contribute to a much larger social and economic web. Where have you been looking? For every lecture about Somali dictators there have been two meetings and rallies for dealing with issues right here on campus. Like Take Back the Night—about rape at Williams. People are trying to work on this campus and outside it—focusing on only one or the other accomplishes nothing. We cannot act on campus unless we’re aware of the larger conversation, and likewise we cannot tend our garden without thinking about the larger scenario, if for no other reason than eventually we have to leave.

Thirdly: “Uniting.” We cannot always act together; we can’t have one group save all the campus’ problems, we need to split at times to cover more ground, then come together when larger issues raise their heads. Moreover, some groups flat out conflict, both with other activist groups and within themselves. An example: Look at the BSU—which has many Christian members. And many queer members. They’re not always going to see eye to eye, either as African-Americans, as queers, as Christians, as Williams students, and as people. And that’s fine. When these individuals need to address what it is to be queer, or Christian, or Muslim, or environmentalist, or Caribbean, they will go to the appropriate group. But at the same time, they will bring their experience from these groups into play as members of the BSU, enriching the larger conversation, and making the group, and the campus stronger as a whole.

The point of the “Whose Responsibility Is it?” program is that there is no one story, no one answer! It’s postmodernism. Get used to it.

The people who write nasty letters, and the people who rip signs, and everyone else unsettled by this project—are upset because the posters don’t offer easy answers. They ask you to think, to reflect, and nothing more. If you’re inspired to act, great. If not, no worries. But no one’s going to tell you how to react. This isn’t a movie; there is not director, no master plan. Only images, stories, pictures, and your conscience. You choose how to assemble them. You decide if it’s your responsibility. And judging by your letter…you have. And maybe you don’t like the answer you came up with.

So to opponents of the campaign—particularly the sign-rippers, the graffiti artists, and those who have used actual or verbal violence in response to what they’ve seen—I can only say to you: Congratulations. For utterly missing the point.