April 13 e-mail 2 from Michelle Kuo
From: Michelle Kuo [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: 4/13/2007 8:05:58 PM
Cc: section1 email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Re: Letter to Dean Kagan Re: The Anonymous E mail
I wasn’t going to share my thoughts, but I talked to a Section 1er who I respect very much. When I asked him why he didn’t share his ideas on our section list, he said he might be misunderstood — perhaps labeled as unfriendly to liberals. This made me feel sad, and made me wonder what we needed to do as a community to create frank dialogue and mutual trust.
His fear of judgment pointed to both the great strength and weakness of the letter to Dean Kagan. On the one hand, it captured how certain strategies — like labeling an email “hate speech” and “racist” — silence debate, further jeopardizing the potential for human connection. And yet his fear of judgment also crystallized the most important point (in my mind) of the letter to Dean Kagan — the lack of institutional space for meaningful dialogue.
I am grateful to the people in our class who have resisted apathy, and I largely agree with the substantive agenda of the letter to Dean Kagan: diversify faculty, create institutional space for dialogue about race, gender, sexuality. The people who signed the letter have been much bolder, energetic, and engaged than I this year, and I can’t emphasize enough how much I respect their desire for change and their vision.
I feel queasy about situating the Cha Millionaire email within the larger, much needed, urgent questions of institutional space, faculty diversity, and legal pedagogy. The Cha Millionaire email is either a minor symptom or red herring; I’m not sure which. Why label the email “racist” and “hate speech”? I view such labels as tools, occasionally strategic and useful, and other times polarizing and inaccurate. When liberals choose to use those labels, they diminish the power of these words. Such a strategy works short term because they can capitalize on the moral cache of such terms: they provide an easy short cut to moral authority. At the same time, it’s a tactic that waylays their targets before those (now persecuted, at least from their point of view) targets even get to speak. Even worse, activists who want to explain how institutional racism works now have less legitimacy.
I would not foreclose debate by calling the email “racist.” I prefer to use “racist” to describe institutional structures our education system and prison system being easy examples. Calling the email “racist”gives the person who wrote the email a strange power; he or she has provoked liberals to use the prototypical trump card. Curiously, the person writing the email can now claim being a victim; that person now has acquired a peculiar moral authority. (He is under attack by the venomous liberals who cast him as morally base.) When we use these words, we risk ceding rhetorical and moral ground.
If we traveled back in time to that moment in Crim where we received the email, can we imagine an alternative world in which we all responded substantively, honestly, sensitively? Imagine people from all political backgrounds contributing to the section list, demolishing the reasoning of the email or perhaps even arguing its merits. The email was just an argument, however crude and uninformed, that has been debated by many non racist scholars. It has been rehashed, over and over, in academic debates from many disciplines, featuring people of many racial, ethnic, and political backgrounds. (The person writing the email has not been exposed perhaps to all of the recurring questions that academics, politicians, preachers, teachers, etc have been trying to unpack for years. For starters: Does conservatives’ obsession with regulating rap music only further mask sociological/economic conditions that perpetuate poverty, education equity? What about the white establishment that produces rap music? How can different institutions encourage socially conscious hip hop? Does rap music glorify violence in any way, and what’s the relevance of that, if any, to violence and criminal justice?)
Or, even better, perhaps people would have used this as a jumping off point to talk about deeper issues. And even better, perhaps eventually we could do what might truly be transformative: acknowledging our biases, the limits of our experience; discussing how we relate to one another, how our experiences limit or expand our lens of analysis. Perhaps we could have started a weekly dialogue with the purpose of talking about this. With wine and cheese, too, or something lighter in spirit.
Why didn’t any of these scenarios happen? There’s the institutional design reason: no spaces have been created for us to have meaningful dialogue and to connect with one another. I’m in total agreement that this needs to change. Yale, for example, has small reading groups of 15 people who talk about these issues throughout the year. (Is anybody else confused by the fact that diversity is used as a recruiting tool — remember those brochures we got with all the happy black, yellow, and white people sitting together? — but that we don’t hear about diversity once we get here?)
Then there’s the other related reason — the laziness reason. That’s the I-have-so-much-reading-I-have-no-emotional-energy-to-engage-with-classmates-who-feel-margnialized. I am guilty of this as anybody else — but the key word here is “guilt.” Surely this particular sensibility, so recognizable to all of us, is a crime.
The truth is that all of us have many different experiences and backgrounds, and some people have less exposure to new ideas than others. I am exposed in some ways, and not exposed in others. I get cynical sometimes about the degree to which one person can really affect another person’s point of view, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the capacity of people (including myself) to pause and listen, respond and change.
However slow moving, however ‘moderate’ this may seem, I believe there’s something radical in this idea. Perhaps I say this because I know this route requires more from us; it requires patience with individual people, it requires us to work with people rather than against them. This may be my own peculiar disposition — perhaps it naivete. I don’t think so, though. I am all about going against, say, the state, in an adversarial way if they’re trying to prosecute my client on death row — but I want to view my classroom as a place of mercy. In my classroom, among friends, I view myself as neither prosecutor nor defender. There is a certain ethic of forgiveness, an abandonment of ego, that we should strive for. I would love for people to engage in a series of dialogues more intimate, more honest, but fundamentally civil.
On a final note, it’s probably revealing that my heroes are more likely to be fiction writers rather than political figures. I think this isbecause writers elicit within me the impulse to understand, and to forgive, in a way that political figures do not. Writers believe in radical empathy. In a short story, you want to understand the character even if he strikes you as a lunatic. You’ll pay attention to the details — what he likes to eat, what makes him vulnerable, how often he calls his mom — that make him human. Perhaps, after pausing and reading his life, you come to forgive, or at least understand.
In the ‘real world’, we must actually deal with the reality of real people. Real people (all of us) are sometimes impenetrable. There must be — and here’s the idealistic but suspicious humanist in me — some forum in which we can listen to one another, and take the time to respond. As per Naomi’s email, I will try to improve on this front.