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Against Unity

Opinion | September 13, 2017

On August 18th, Tufts University put out a video called “Bridging Difference,” wherein Provost David Harris poses the question: “How is it that we create an environment that’s conducive to talking across lines of difference?” The short video then asks students to help “facilitate constructive engagement” on campus.

So often at Tufts we hear large and sweeping calls for unity and “constructive engagement” like Provost Harris’. We are told we must “come together” as a campus, foster “civil discourse,” and work together towards shared goals that value the wants and needs of “all” students. We hear this from students and administration alike.

We hear this about almost every debate on campus, whether it be divestment from fossil fuels, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the fate of Greek life, or how we decide to treat our workers. When students protest racist, anti-LGBT, and anti-poor politicians, they are condemned for “isolating” opposing voices; when they work to pass senate resolutions on much-discussed issues they are told there wasn’t enough time for debate on said issue; when student activists do almost anything at Tufts, others—often those in power—insist they aren’t doing enough to bring this campus together, and instead are trying to divide the student body with “radical” agendas and hide behind their “echo chambers.”

But what if, instead of viewing a “divided campus” as a bad thing, we saw it as a necessary good? A divided campus means people care, and they are willing to fight—and divide—for their beliefs.

What if we considered the value of division?

Unity certainly has its time and place—it can be awe-inspiring to see people come together in the wake of a tragedy and work towards rebuilding and reshaping their community. This need not, though, apply to every conflict at Tufts. Instead, calls for unity often function to silence dissent and obfuscate the very real problems that exist here at Tufts.

When students speak out against the oppression they face on campus and are chastised for alleged divisiveness, this ultimately asks marginalized students to silence themselves at the expense of so-called “unity.” And this definition of unity is one that largely centers those who already hold power. A call for unity, in this sense, does not actually call for a coming together of the student body, but rather calls for silence in the face of marginalization.

Additionally, in these same conversations, we often hear a call for the “coming together of both sides.” Yet within these calls is a dangerous false equivalency that further clouds where power lies here at Tufts.

For example, consider the fight for Tufts janitors to be paid fair wages and work under better conditions. Critics of the movements lead by janitors, SEIU (the union that represents these janitors), and Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC), frame this issue as one having two sides: the administration versus the janitors. What this does is imply that both sides have equal footing and power in the situations. Even if there are “two sides to every story,” we must remember when it comes to campus issues—and in issues beyond our campus—there is often one side with power and one side without it. When we use the same language to describe the demands of two different groups, we ignore the power imbalances that exist between them.

The administration is a group of wealthy, mostly White, folks who make hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, further corporatize our university, and seem to lately be less concerned with student safety and more concerned with donors, the upcoming capital campaign, and US News and World Report rankings. The janitors are workers who make sure our campus is clean and livable, and they are making barely enough to live in an area as expensive as the Boston Metro area. To group these two “sides” as equals in a fight is to deny the obvious structural differences that exist between the two.

What do calls for unity, then, actually do besides falsely framing conflict as having two sides with equal footing? They also function to tell those working to make this campus safer, healthier, and more inclusive for all to sit down, shut up, and listen to those on campus who actively contribute to oppression. They are asking students to “come together,” not realizing that many on this campus don’t want to.

To make it more personal: why should I, a queer person, unite with those on this campus that are actively queerphobic and transphobic? Who continue to align themselves with anti-queer and anti-trans clubs, organizations, and beliefs? What good would that do me? And why would I even want to do that?

Many will say: the campus left doesn’t want to hear other sides. They will paint this argument as such. This is deceitful. It’s not that we don’t want to hear other sides or perspectives, it’s that we have heard other sides—we are constantly exposed to them—and we have actively chosen to oppose them. A campus with a lot of fighting is actually a campus with a lot of ideas—this, I believe, is a good thing. And the irony lies in that we are told we are the ones who hate free speech, want to exist on our own “echo chamber,” and can’t hear opposing sides, when we are actually quite the opposite. Free speech is not dead at Tufts. But calls for unity can sometimes threaten it.

When the University recently took down posts from all class Facebook pages linking to the Disorientation Guide—a zine providing counter-narrative information for incoming first-years about Tufts—Patrick Collins, Tufts’ executive director of public relations, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Although we respect students’ rights to free speech and expression, we also reserve the right to determine what may or may not be appropriate to share through the university’s official communications platforms.” He continued by saying, “…the guide run[s] counter to our community’s shared values and standards and to Orientation’s mission.” Collins statement makes me wonder: how can our university’s values simultaneously include “bridging difference” and censoring the opinions held by many of its students? Who is really trying to exist in an echo chamber?

This year, I hope to see campus division continue. While yes, it would be nice if the majority of campus supported the causes student activists fight for, given the deliberate racial and socio-economic makeup of this campus, this will not happen any time soon. Continued division can look like an acknowledgment of the stark divisions that exist on this campus, whether validated or not. Instead of striving to “bridge difference,” we should be centering those bearing the brunt of the “differences” this university has failed to bridge.

If your unity looks like silencing marginalized voices and relying on false equivalencies to obscure evident power structures, I’ll continue to shout.

Welcome back to school.