Dinner Table Politics
The gap between campus activism and larger liberal culture has never been wider. As a 2017 graduate of Brown University, I’ve borne recent witness to heated debates between younger and older liberals about activist tactics, methods of dialogue, and campus protests. Often, these conversations come home with students to the Thanksgiving table or family sphere.
My younger sister, Lily, is now a sophomore at Brown. She and I have spent a lot of time breaking things down with our parents–particularly about the privilege inherent in our own family’s secure income and whiteness. Sometimes the conversations are cordial, sometimes less so. I sat down with Lily and my Dad to talk about this intergenerational divide, and the issues we’ve grappled with in the last five years.
Part I: Dialogue
GEORGIA: How do you classify yourself politically, on the left to right scale?
DAD: I’m a liberal Democrat, but that does not mean in the world of Brown University I would be viewed all the way over to the left.
I think there’s more left than I ever thought there was.
LILY: At Brown, the continuum on the left has been expanded to the point where even people who in the larger world would be considered liberal are just seen as villains. The center has shifted. In terms of Brown I’m kind of in the middle, honestly. I wouldn’t consider myself super radical, but I’m still very much on the left.
DAD: The problem is what we now call identity politics. People are fighting for a particular identity group that they belong to, and might make everything about that, because they want to be the ones to control the issue. They want to control the dialogue.
GEORGIA: Dad, what were your expectations for how Lily and I would engage with politics at Brown? College is historically a place where people go to protests and get engaged in politics. You went to Harvard, mom went to Georgetown, and your dad was a college professor at Swarthmore. So it wasn’t a totally new environment to you, but I’m guessing there were some things that were pretty unexpected about having kids going to college in 2017.
DAD: We knew Brown was a liberal place, that you’d meet liberal people overall. Neither of us had any issues with that. We both had our own views on talking about politics in college, something both of us did, but a lot of the issues you brought back and started raising weren’t what we were expecting.
The issues that we typically dealt with involved looking at national politics, local politics, and issues of gender and race equality. But the question of who is discussing them is not one that we ever really had to talk about.
Georgia, you got into a lot of battles with Mom. You guys would go in circles, because you would say she was privileged or something along those lines, and try to undercut whatever message she was trying to say. And I do have a problem with that. I think a dialogue should be a dialogue. I don’t agree that you’re disqualified from having any valid point or idea or contribution to a discussion about women because you’re a man, or about race because you’re white.
LILY: Of course anyone can have a valid point. But sometimes people could have more valid points if they’re arguing from the perspective of a certain identity. For example, when arguing about gender, a woman might just have better things to say because she’s drawing from experience about issues women face. It’s important to listen to whoever’s arguing from the position of experience.
DAD: Well, right. I agree with that. Women’s reproductive rights and those things are inherently women’s issues. Biologically women are different. When it comes to women-specific issues, like abortion and women’s health issues, it’s obvious you’re going to defer to women. I know that’s not true for everyone, but it’s true for me.
But when it comes to in the workplace, in a society, in culture, in relationships, men have to be part of the solution if it’s ever going to happen. You need to have buy-in. Obviously, people who have been subject to persecution want to be heard, and I hear them, and that’s a great thing. The #MeToo movement and and Black Lives Matter and even Occupy Wall Street raised awareness to certain injustices.
But when it comes time to talk about what we’re going to do about it, there’s an effort to silence certain voices. Because they come from a privileged background, or are male if it’s a gender issue, or white, or what-have-you.
LILY: Okay, but you acknowledge that being silenced because you’re privileged is very different than being silenced because you’re underprivileged. The latter problem is much worse, right?
GEORGIA: I think a lot of people would say is, “Well, welcome to our world. We’re black, we’re lower economic status than you, and how we’ve felt for pretty much all of history is that we’re not valued, what we have to say isn’t taken in the same way, and we’re not welcome to be part of the change because it’s being led by people who look like you and not people who look like us.”
DAD: I understand that if you’re underprivileged and you’ve been silenced–well, if you’re privileged that’s not a problem you’ve ever had.
What I don’t want to have is when the privileged person is talking about it but told they can’t. “We’re the ones who get to talk about it, it’s our issue. We’re the ones who get to structure this dialogue,” basically. And you have to listen to it.
GEORGIA: What if it’s an instance of a minority specific problem? In Black Lives Matter, for example, don’t you think that it makes a lot of sense for black activists to be the ones leading and structuring this movement, because they have an innate understanding of how the community has been affected by police brutality?
DAD: I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t lead it. It would probably make a lot more sense for them to lead it.
What I think happens is there’s an attempt to devalue what the person in privilege has to say, because they’re in that position. There’s a famous clip in the Brown Dean’s office where the Assistant Dean comes out and basically gets shouted down [by activists].
I think there are enough people who want to create change that it can be done if we all pull together. I do feel that if people in the privileged position are made to feel like they’re not welcome to be part of the discussion, part of the solution, that it’s never going to happen. They’re not invited to contribute and be viewed as someone who can work toward a solution, as opposed to having a solution be dictated to them.
LILY: I would say the vast majority of protections for women in the workplace come from complaints by women. Women are the ones who have had to speak up about it because if they hadn’t, nobody would have said anything.
What we’re saying is that to get protection for other minority groups or other underprivileged groups, we have to listen to them first and then work together.
I’m seeing the parallel. But say you have somebody who wants to help or is actively trying to help in some cases, or is simply sympathetic, and they do need to be made aware, and that involves listening and paying attention. If this person wants to add something to the conversation, they shouldn’t be made to feel devalued because of who they are.
If I have been listening, and I do hear the stories, then I should be able to speak to it. If the answer is, “Well you’re never going to understand because you’re never going to walk a mile in my shoes,” then to me it’s like, well why even try to explain it to me if I’m never going to understand?
I think that a person of privileged position should be asking what they can do to help the most. You want to do the most that you can while being a person of privilege.
GEORGIA: Dad, I understand you’re coming from a perspective of someone who is well-intentioned and has spent a lot of time considering where you are in the world. It’s just not something that people want to hear, because there are all these histories of white people colonizing countries that never asked for that, or going on these crazy trips to Africa to be a white savior for African nations or whatever.
A lot of people are still really hurting from that, and are like, Why would you spend all this energy defending yourself when there’s a glut of historical evidence that so many people who do fit your demographic have treated us so poorly? Is what people really need from you now, a voice to defend the people of privilege?
DAD: I’m not defending all people of privilege. I’m just asking to be treated as a human first and foremost. If there’s a good idea it shouldn’t matter where it comes from.
LILY: Of course everyone should get treated as a human, but I’m just saying people who have good ideas are most likely not going to be you, a privileged person.
DAD: That’s like me saying, you know, somebody I should hire at my law firm is most likely not going to be somebody who’s black, or something really ridiculous like that.
LILY: Well, you just flipped the power dynamic on its head. There’s a big difference there. I really need you to get that you can’t compare yourself not getting listened to in a debate to being oppressed because you’re black in the workplace. You just can’t compare those two things. They’re not the same thing.
DAD: I wasn’t suggesting they’re the same thing.
LILY: You just used it as an analogy.
DAD: Well, I used it as an analogy because–
LILY: Maybe I should rephrase. You could have good ideas, but you still don’t know what’s best for people from minorities simply because you’re not part of it.
DAD: But if I listen and try to understand the problem, I can do a lot better job of trying to help them, if they’re open to that from me. Going back to something Georgia said, I get the feeling that people are thinking, “now you know how it feels,” to not have the voice. “This is what’s been happening to us for millennia. And now you know.” To me, that’s just not a justification for that kind of behavior. That’s like, two wrongs make a right, or schadenfreude or whatever.
I’m not saying I’m personally going to come up with the best ideas, I just want to be listened to. We’re having a dialogue. There’s no point in having a dialogue if you’re not going to listen to me.
LILY: A debate can happen equally between however many people, but when people of different backgrounds and experiences debate, you have to acknowledge the difference. Otherwise, you’re saying that there’s no difference and there’s no work to be done.
DAD: Clearly there’s work to be done. To me it’s obvious that black people and women have suffered and continue to suffer. It’s not in the past; it’s a continuing thing, it happens every day. Many people either don’t believe it’s going on, or they do see it’s going on, but they don’t care.
I could see how someone like me could get lumped in with those [ignorant] people. For all I know, I’m perpetrating bad things every day. I don’t want to be, I try to be aware, but I don’t claim to be a perfect person. However, I’m sitting here, and–overtly, at least–would much rather be part of the solution.
GEORGIA: It’s clear that so much of inequalities and the -isms are structurally ingrained into our society. We can all be participating in systems that are bad for one group of people over the other. It’s a lot less to do with explicit racism or sexism and a lot more about breaking down these larger systems. It’s not all implicit, but there’s a lot of implicit stuff that gets overlooked in the face of overt, disgusting stuff. So I do think it’s important that you said, okay, I’m an imperfect person. That acknowledgement is part of moving towards the solution.
Part II: Language
GEORGIA: Dad, earlier in conversation you said “women are the ones who have reproductive organs,” or something along those lines. There are a lot of trans people out there who would say, “Well, I’m a man, but I have reproductive organs, and I feel ignored when you say that.”
This leads to a larger conversation about the language that gets used at a place like Brown. How it can protect people, or not?
DAD: A lot of the hairsplitting definitions in academia can totally befuddle the rest of the world. As a lawyer, I’m used to hairsplitting definitions, trust me.
LILY: How do we balance coming up with language that makes people feel comfortable and being accessible to the people who aren’t part of this in-group? We use all this language in the name of doing good and making people feel better, which I will reiterate is important to make people feel included.
But there’s a problem at Brown, this cover-all-the-bases style of argument. You have to establish yourself as someone who knows everything that there is to know about the way to discuss anything.
Even if you have a good point, if you talk about it in the wrong way, you get alienated. Of course, I think it’s important to call out when anyone says something wrong, but if it’s something they haven’t learned, it’s more important to teach them then it is to say, “Well now you can’t talk about it because you didn’t say ‘women and trans men and non-binary people with uteruses,’” so now you can’t talk about the issue.
GEORGIA: I remember talking to a friend one time about how students often assume that everyone who doesn’t go to Brown doesn’t have the capacity to learn the language, or isn’t smart enough. Which is so dumb. It’s a completely learned language, one that takes time.
LILY: Around here it’s really easy to be dismissive of people as if they can’t learn, to just dismiss them outright. You have to be in the mindset of: anyone can learn to have these discussions that makes everyone feel included. At Brown, we just tend to be like, “you’ll never understand, there’s no use, it’s a waste of time.”
DAD: That goes back to what I was talking about previously, how you’re frozen out of adding to the discussion, because you’ll never understand.
GEORGIA: I think you two are actually meeting in the middle right now. Lily is saying that you have to be able to listen, and also be able to extend to other people, to teach. It’s okay to say, “Today I don’t feel like teaching, today I’m going to go do something else,” but I do think in order for change to happen you need people who are open in both directions. People who are willing to listen and be patient and not speak over others, and people who are willing to take time to educate.
DAD: I think people enjoy having the power over the conversation or the group or what have you by dictating the terms of how you talk about it. A lot of times it involves terms that in my view are ill-defined, but maybe I just haven’t learned them yet. When somebody tries to respond and doesn’t use the terms in the right way, the reaction is “you don’t know what you’re talking about”.
LILY: Let’s say you are having a debate and you use a word that you didn’t know was offensive, Dad. And somebody says, “oh, you really shouldn’t use that word, it’s offensive to this group.” Of course it doesn’t feel great to know you’ve been using a word that feels offensive to someone. But they’re not trying to point you out as the person who’s privileged, who doesn’t know.
GEORGIA: Although some people definitely get off on that.
LILY: Yeah. In an ideal situation you would still get called out for using the offensive word, you’d still get corrected. In an ideal situation, we would try to stop using the offensive word, and you would also have to understand why it’s not being used.
DAD: Who gets to decide whether it’s offensive to an entire group or not? In the world of colleges there are people on campus who are offended and convince everyone to use a certain language, but maybe out in the broader world it’s not a bigger deal. I’m not saying there are not many instances where I could be corrected for saying things that could offend people. I’m not saying that I can’t be educated and I know everything and it’s all just a bunch of hooey. But I do feel like in some cases that does happen.
LILY: It does, but you can’t generalize for all cases. If even one person had what I thought was a legitimate reason to be offended by something I could not say it to them.
GEORGIA: But you could use that to say that people are “offended” by trans people, or gay people, or mixed race marriages–you could use that logic to justify a ton of insane claims.
LILY: I guess offended maybe isn’t the right word. Because anybody can be offended by anything. Maybe a better word would be–if you feel like you’re being put in danger by language, that’s the feeling I’m trying to get at.
GEORGIA: I understand what you’re saying, but this is where I think it becomes an issue of nuance. It’s more of a judgment call. You should take things on a case by case basis. You can’t just say across the board that if somebody is offended by something we don’t say it, because that could be applied to so many messed up things.
DAD: I agree. Some people use it as a weapon in argument to throw people off. For example, I brought up women’s rights, and you came back and brought in the trans issue after I had made my point. But I may have been speaking to somebody else who interrupted me to make that point. It could have created a one-sided debate and basically thrown me off of what I was trying to say.
LILY: It shouldn’t derail the debate.
DAD: It’s a judgement call, like Georgia said. Is this person trying to make a point that’s actually helpful?
Part III: The Gap
GEORGIA: This divide in the conversation— what’s your perception of the gap that’s happening here? There obviously exists some communication barriers. I see a lot of it as generational. But there have always been radicals who have pushed the conversation. Malcolm X was a really radical man, but we still acknowledge his contributions to the civil rights movement.
DAD: Generational [divide] is probably the issue here. New technologies are accelerating, the pace of change is accelerating such that the differences between generations can almost be greater now than they were before.
GEORGIA: Also, our generation communicates really differently on social media than yours. Which is a big part of this political stuff.
DAD: There’s that, there’s a lot of evidence there’s a lot more anxiety disorders and things like that in your generation than ours. Things change, and you have to acknowledge it.
LILY: A big issue is that people from your generation say all these new issues are being brought up that weren’t happening in the past. As we see it, there are problems that were happening in the past that weren’t being addressed.
GEORGIA: Right. For example, the police brutality issues and the body cams. All these videos were coming out and it was like, this crazy thing that was enabled by a very new form of publicizing the issue. But the issue was clearly something that had been going on since America started, especially in the post-Jim Crow era. It just wasn’t revealed until recently. That felt like a clear example of something that’s not a new issue, it’s just been recently publicized.
DAD: I’m not trying to take away from that by suggesting there are new issues, but certainly there’s a new importance of the individual. We’re such individuals [now]. Society wasn’t always that way. This emphasis on the individual is connected to identity politics, I think. History will break it down later.
LILY: People who are your age, Dad, don’t know what it’s like to grow up now. But we don’t have the perspective that you do of having been alive longer. That’s a fundamental difference. A lot of the change in this country comes from young people, so you have to listen to us too. We have to find a way for that balance to be struck for people to listen to each other. I don’t know, I don’t know how to fix it. Don’t ask me what the solution is.
Georgia Wright is a Brooklyn-based writer and audio journalist whose work centers around the intersection of climate change, politics, and human relationships.