On Being Uncomfortable

Two recent news stories caught my attention in that they highlight a major dysfunction in our society.

At Hampshire College, in the small Western Massachusetts college town of Amherst, someone burned the American flag on campus in the days after the Presidential election, so the school then put up a new flag.  This was lowered it to half-staff, in solidarity with those fearing a Donald Trump presidency (by some accounts) and in mourning for racial violence victims…which sparked backlash from others, and thus they removed the flag from campus entirely.

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“Two Minute Warning” Spider Martin, March 1965

Meanwhile, in Pearl, Mississippi a billboard showed up bearing Spider Martin‘s iconic “Two Minute Warning” (The photo was taken moments before troopers tear gassed and beat protesters) with the label “Make America Great Again.”  This has caused consternation and perhaps even outrage: the headline is Mississippi residents unsure of controversial billboard’s intent, the mayor wants it removed, the governor calls it “divisive.”

So, at the highest academic levels we either don’t know how to or simply refuse to have a conversation about politics, and at the highest government levels we apparently don’t understand the first amendment protections around freedom of speech.  As a populace, we’re not sure we know what to think: we engage more with “fake news” than with “real news.”  Perhaps that’s more of an indictment of our “Info-tainment news than it is an indictment of Facebook algorithms.  

At some point in life you have to take a stand and engage that which is uncomfortable. Life isn’t all about “safe places” and avoiding difficult conversations. The school was wrong for lowering the flag to half staff – that’s not a way to protest the results of an election, it’s a means by which one honors disasters or deaths. Just that act was an affront for which the school would appropriately be chastised. Among their students are veterans or members of military families, but one doesn’t have to be a veteran to be offended by such a violation of flag protocol or by removing the flag altogether.

“Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Finley Dunne

The way one would properly fly a flag signalling distress (in extreme danger to life or property) is upside down, but even that isn’t an appropriate expression here. I’m sure they could argue that there’s an extreme danger to life of minorities or other dispossessed folk (I’m not entirely sure that would have intellectual validity) but they’ve not even chosen that expression.

In response for having their hand slapped, the school took their ball and went home.  Their chosen means of expression was the removal of expression, to deny any solidarity with the country.

This is a school in the business of educating future leaders and they decide to take the flag down because they can’t control vandals, don’t wish to heed those who have appropriately identified their breach of flag protocol/etiquette and last don’t wish to have a dialogue about constructive means by which opposition can be expressed. They can’t separate the president-elect of the United States from the office of the President from the symbol of the United States. It was more important to avoid the conversation than it was to have the conversation.

They could have taken the stand that our nation was larger than any disagreement among us, flown the flag at full staff – protecting it if they deemed necessary – and engaged the campus in a campus-wide discussion about the campaign, what it means, and what needs to happen going forward in a way that the school could support.  I would argue this conversation should have been going on well before November 8 if they were truly interested in a diversity of thought.

From the schools’ president: “we have decided that we will not fly the U.S. flag or any other flags at Hampshire for the time being. We hope this will enable us to instead focus our efforts on addressing racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and behaviors.”  The rationale equating the flag – and the country – with those things is extremely dangerous, and yet the Hampshire College board fails to see it that way.  Symbols are extremely powerful, but so are symbolic actions.

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Cesar Cruz

The billboard was meant to be controversial, specifically designed to cause conversation, and response:  Mississippi overwhelmingly went for Trump, and has a troubled racial history.  The message is provocative because the message conveyed could be any number of things: were this the point of view of the Klu Klux Klan, it would be hate speech; in this case it’s the work of an artist with the express purpose of discussing what we mean when we use a phrase like “Make America great again.”

And so it goes that we have become uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.  In the meantime, we’re faced with a Vonnegutesque warning: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Schools have pretended that to be educated means not having to confront opposition to your ideas, not having to defend your ideas, and that ideas contrary are to be avoided or just not engaged.   We’ve pretended that making anti-discrimination national policy is equivalent to ending the conversation.  We’ve pretended that racial diversity and ethnic diversity is the only diversity that matters, that engaging other opposing ideas is dangerous and that diversity of thought will somehow expose us to danger rather than strengthening our understanding of each other.

Let’s stop pretending that conversation is a bad thing to be avoided, that ideas different from your own can hurt, and that it’s more important to be convinced you’re right than it is to find common understanding. That somehow engaging a conversation is more trouble than it’s worth.

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3 thoughts on “On Being Uncomfortable”

  1. True conversations can lead to productive change … however, participants must be willing to leave their sacred cows at the door, not draw a line in the sand, and listen.

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