Conversation’s not enough, it’s time for action

The Daily has an editorial today titled “It’s time for a new conversation on race“. It’s better than anything I’ve seen on the topic on the pages of our largest student newspaper, and I strongly recommend that you read it. However, it still has plenty of shortcomings. Much of it comes from a common liberal perspective obsessed with “showing both sides” to any question, especially common among journalists in the United States. Perhaps the most famous example of this tendency is The New York Times‘ round-table section, Room for Debate. Closer to us, The Daily recently published arguments for and against affirmative action in its columns, with such an awful negative argument that I was forced to write a response.

The article begins by what we’ve come to expect from NU liberals: a call for more conversations, more debate, more openness, more inclusion, etc. It’s always about talking, hearing the other side. Some times the talking needs a qualitative change, but in the end it’s always through talking that problems get solved. This pointless idealism has led nowhere in the past, and it will lead nowhere in the future.

The break comes where, for once, they seem to recognize that there is something missing from their position. I quote:

And as the tone of the conversation must change, so must the goals. It is not good enough for the administration to host another forum, commission another report or create another administrative position. Certainly, these can be enlightening in demonstrating the distance we have to go before we are indeed One Northwestern. However, we too often fall into the trap of being satisfied with ourselves simply for talking.

Students have called for and received new administrators, but racial issues have not been resolved. We push the University into taking artificial measures that they can put in viewbooks, but which clearly have not translated into a more inclusive Northwestern. We haven’t seen any major changes, or even major plans that might lead to change.

They see the light! Talking has failed. And yet what solution do they propose? “It’s time for a new conversation.” Talking has failed, long live talking!

Conversations is what we’ve had, and their tone is not the only thing that made them unproductive. If “we need to hold our administrators accountable,” as The Daily‘s editors recognize, we can’t do so by merely having more and more conversations with more and more different tones. We might make some nice music, but no solution to the problem of the color line.

We can’t keep on watering down our message to include more perspectives at the cost of losing any possibility of action. There will be plenty of people who are quite happy with the administration not doing anything, the people who are just happy to see Morty at the football games. They say “a movement that requires consensus must allow everyone a seat at the table,” but when a significant portion of our so-called consensus is happy with the status quo, our “movement” will be nothing but a so-called movement.

A movement, by definition, is always oppositional. There is nothing more oppositional than a movement. If there were a way to just “convince” everyone by conversation upon conversation, we would never need a movement. Sure, we’re not going to fix our problems by getting an enlightened few to sit in at the president’s office and demand that he abolish racism, but we also can’t strive to include every last person on campus into our conversation. We must draw the line at some point and take action despite some disagreement, even if that disagreement comes from most of the student body.

Trying to take both sides, and saying Strong and Slivka merely failed to find common ground, is in direct contradiction with The Daily‘s stated aim of trying to create a more inclusive Northwestern. The problem is not that we’re not being inclusive of people like Slivka, it’s that people like Slivka are oblivious to the way in which they’re being exclusive and using their power to further oppression in this campus. You’re not going to convince everyone by merely “taking their side,” at some point we just have to say ‘enough’ and take our own side, take action.

We can postpone action until we all agree, or we can fight for “One Northwestern” now. Imagine where the Civil Rights Movement would have gone if, instead of direct action, they had sat down and had conversations until everyone in the United States had become a passionate anti-racist. There are limits to oratory, even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—one of the greatest orators of our time—knew that. I did not arrive in the United States too long ago, and I am not yet very acquainted with your history or literature, but thankfully I have already managed to get my hands on Dr. King’s writing, in particular his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

For too long we’ve been involved in negotiations, and for too long we’ve been losing ground to those who will not negotiate, those who will not talk, those who are so blind to their privilege that they see every attempt to negotiate as an encroachment on their rights. So, Daily editors, and all those who are reading: will you keep talking, or will you take a stand?

Author: Mauricio Maluff Masi

My name is Mauricio Maluff Masi. I come from Asunción, Paraguay. I’m a Philosophy PhD Candidate at Northwestern University. If you wish to contact me, e-mail me at mmaluff (at) gmail (dot) com. You can also find me on twitter at @mmaluff.