To receive a Williams College degree is to have had access to a liberal arts education beyond compare elsewhere in the U.S. It is to be inscribed, immediately and without hesitation, within a network of those who share a particular utopian vision for education disavowed nearly everywhere else in this country. It is impressed upon us from the moment we enter these hallowed halls that we are in the last stronghold against those who clamor for education to be useful, applicable and increasingly accessible. We dutifully report to classes, painstakingly explicate our ideas upon the page and drive our bodies across the field, oblivious all the while to the war being waged just beyond our walls. This has always been the precarious balance that Williams maintains. It is only through exclusion – “this is a place without hate,” “we must do all we can to prevent future incidents,” “we do not tolerate such speech” – that we establish the terms upon which we build our community. Thus, the line is drawn and our fences are erected.
This is the great unspoken secret of our institution and perhaps the greatest privilege of our education: We have willfully blinded ourselves to the division that constitutes our terms of engagement. It is not uncommon to speak of the purple bubble, but our grave error is in believing that the purple bubble merely shields us from the conflicts of the “outside world,” a treacherous reality beyond the reach of our Williams-themed self-celebration and student center petting zoos. Do we not see that no number of New York Times subscriptions optimistically delivered to Paresky or well-intentioned guest speakers will penetrate what we have so assiduously safeguarded? We are blinded to the divisions within our community which have already rent it apart.
When hateful words are spewed – “all n****rs must die,” “all beaners must die” – we rush to shore up our defenses, we “pull together,” “support each other” and “come together as a community.” We treat hate as a force that aims to destroy our body politic, an infestation that we must rout from our midst. We label these events “hate crimes,” “assault,” “vandalism,” in order to keep what is abhorrent to us at a distance.
In truth, “hate crimes” hold a mirror up to our community, a community that already harbors hostility to difference within itself. We are horrified by the vision of ourselves that the mirror presents, and we turn away from it. We search for criminals, for perpetrators, for hatemongers, all the while avoiding confrontation with ourselves. The position of the perpetrator becomes a seat which is perennially unoccupied and repudiated by all. The “perpetrator” is a screen upon which we can project all of our fears, desires and fantasies, a screen that shields us from ourselves.
We must demand of ourselves, and of each other, the temerity to confront our reflections. For to self-reflect is to knowingly and willingly be turned back upon oneself. To recognize the inconsistencies within oneself is to refuse generalizations, false dichotomies and seeming absolutes. Is this not, after all, what the mission statement of the College calls upon us to do? “No one,” it reads, “can more than guess at what students now entering college will be called upon to comprehend in the decades ahead.” Yet, in confronting the chimera of the future armed with the power of a liberal arts education, we must “understand that an education at Williams should not be regarded as a privilege destined to create further privilege, but as a privilege that creates opportunities to serve society at large and imposes the responsibility to do so.” Our mandate to serve society at large can be fulfilled only by first turning inwards. The late Professor Robert Gaudino told us that our purpose is not merely to have experience, but to use it, to reflect upon it and to let it enhance or inhibit our sense of self. I would add that our purpose is to use experience to ask critical questions, both of ourselves and of the institutions of which we become a part. It is only through this inward turn that we equip ourselves to fight a problem that eludes definition and form. Without this, we are haunted by paralysis.
I call for a collective apostasy. I call for each of us to refuse to subscribe to the current order of things, an order that presents for our consumption an image of a tolerant, righteous, diverse community. I call for each of us to take stock no longer in the certainty of our collective innocence, but to understand the degree to which we are all implicated.
Jenny Tang ’13 is an art studio major from Brooklyn, N.Y. She lives in Dodd.