As college students in particular, we have a duty to transform an emotionally charged public issue with reasoned argument. A Nov. 22 article in The Spectator by Brendan O’Neill laments that “at one of the highest seats of learning on Earth, the democratic principle of free and open debate, of allowing differing opinions to slog it out in full view of discerning citizens, has been violated.” In refusal to allow that to happen at Boston College, I will try to take this from a reasoned approach.
This is a question of method: How we, as a socially responsible student body, approach questions about our communal identity. This is not a judgment of the jury decisions or of any particular individual actions. I want to make it obvious that I appreciate Lindsey for taking the time to write her letter, standing up for her beliefs in demonstrating, and continuing a conversation on the subject. A voice for transparency, for truth, for justice is always relevant and necessary. But the letter’s voice is not that voice right now. In our country, justice happens in dialogue, in the opposition between multiple sides. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Where is our debate? This issue has quickly and quietly developed a “right” side and the other side on which everyone not yelling in the streets falls. The letter suggests that the so-called silent voices also belong to this other side. The evidence I have seen points at this conclusion: the silent either are so complacent as to be ignorant of the discussion, or they are afraid to voice their opinion among a group that has adopted a tunnel vision for the truth.
One of the problems our world faces is the concept that “error has no right.” This is the idea that certain views are out of line with the mainstream and need quieting. While I do not think that the perpetuation of this concept was the intention of the letter, the contents of it do highlight an implicit censorship of differing viewpoints. The letter ignores or belittles the fact that some, who consider themselves “dedicated to social justice,” may not agree with the message carried by the masses. The tone of the letter leaves very little room for discussion, critical thought, or those who do not know where they should stand because their opinion differs from this norm.
We must bear in mind the reality that there are far too many injustices occurring every day. At a certain point, we must accept a human flaw: we cannot personally act on all of these. Our inability to respond to every injustice does not mean that we are complicit in their perpetuation. A student who does Boston but not Appa is not guilty of MLK’s rhetorical charge. I agree that we all ought to do more to fight injustice everywhere, but I accept that message from John 8:7. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
For me to take a hardline stance on this issue, I would feel bound by reason to read the 400 pages of transcripts in order to reach a fully informed opinion. It would be irresponsible for me to advocate that my peers reduce a complicated issue to a black-and-white stance. Even so, could anyone not present for those grand jury hearings know enough to judge what happened in them? Surely, every human life has tremendous value and I lament both deaths as well as their consequences.
The reactionary response of the vast majority, as represented in the letter, has ignored the complexity of issues at stake here. To make a claim about structural violence—and I agree that our country faces structural violence—we need to look at properly conducted statistical research. Otherwise, our emotions bog down and filter the ways we perceive the truth. Perhaps this is why the letter claims, “The truth is that perception is reality.” Perception is incredibly real, but our perception is flawed, subjective, and finite. For the ancients, using our perception to confirm truths about the world meant affirming a geocentric solar system. Perception, therefore, should not be our indicator of truth.
To satisfy public opinion is not a reason for something to go to trial. Given the preliminary research that I have had time to do, it seems to me that Eric Garner’s death neither was fueled by racial-hate nor involved intent to murder. This does not exonerate Officer Pantaleo since it did involve police brutality, which is problematic and inhumane, and likely involved stereotyping.
Despite my efforts, I cannot seem to find a specific goal by the protesters. Rather, I observe blind anger, confusion, finger pointing, and an ambiguous message; much unlike the cause led by MLK. Violent language can solve issues no better than violent actions. In The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
A grand jury consists of members of the community. As community members constitute grand juries, so community and social values share in the responsibility of the outcome. It is these values for which we must take responsibility for shaping. We all “feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game,” but how we take steps to correct that cannot come through the type of one-sided, heavy-handed monopoly on ‘truth’ claimed by a letter fueled by emotion and anger.
To end, I want to add that I agree with Lindsey on the importance of students voicing their opinion as opposed to silence. Her letter is detrimental to this cause because it forces us to either bandwagon on a monopolized truth or to be condemned because they feel any opinion other than the “right” one is wrong.
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Photo Staff