Polarity^2: The fallacy of radical respect

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Distress erupted this past week in our community at Lawrence. Our Associate Dean and Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Kimberly Barrett, sent an email titled “Radical Respect” that has many in our student body (myself included) frustrated. The point of contention in the email refers to the candidacy for a class representative of one of our peers, specifically the discourse and reactions surrounding it in the student-run Facebook group called The Shoutbox, a group with over 950 members that consists entirely of Lawrentians. 

The Facebook post in question came on January 18th of this year. This post by the candidate in question contained a divisive platform. Out of six, the two most divisive positions were “END THE PLEDGE: Return to normal at the beginning of Spring term” (referring to the school’s COVID policy) and “PROTECT FREE SPEECH: Prevent hate-speech policies from censoring underrepresented perspectives.” The comments on the post were 101 in total, with most of them critical of the candidate or platform, a handful were unrelated to the discourse, and only one by my count that defended the candidate (not defending his platform, but simply said that we should be more accepting of differing viewpoints). The critical comments ranged from thoughtful paragraphs arguing against the notion that our hate-speech policy infringes upon freedom of speech to short quips like “aren’t you outwardly transphobic lmfao.”  

In thinking about this critically, there is an important distinction to be made between civil and political discourse. The Shoutbox defines itself as “a platform open for anyone who wants to make an announcement or pose a question.” The About section also contains the line “Please keep politics to a minimum, and as always, the Honor Code rules.” From this, we understand The Shoutbox as a place mainly for civil discourse, which a Google search will define as “conversation in which there is a mutual airing of views without rancor.”  

Political discourse doesn’t generally show up; most of the posts tend to be harmless questions and event announcements related to student life. That said, as we have a student government (LUCC), there comes a time where students have political campaigns for various positions, leaving way for (necessarily) political discourse. The first Google result for political discourse provides “the formal exchange of reasoned views as to which of several alternative courses of action should be taken to solve a societal problem.”  

The word “reasoned” is key, also showing up in Dr. Barrett’s email criticizing the backlash to the candidate, stating: “He was met with personal attacks and spurious accusations rather than reasoned arguments against his proposals.” I have some important and related questions to pose to Dr. Barrett’s criticism: Were the accusations spurious or just uncivil? Can we separate the candidate personally from his platform? What constitutes reasoned?  

A main point of contention on The Shoutbox post was the candidate’s history of transphobia. The candidate’s transphobia is something I’ve seen to be held by a number of Lawrentians but also relates specifically to his letter to the editor from 2019 in The Lawrentian. This letter criticized an LUCC resolution requiring Lawrence to have at least 33% and no more than 66% of our restrooms be gender-inclusive, open to anyone. The candidate held that “This resolution prioritizes the comfort of transgender students at the expense of others.” and also cited an instance of voyeurism occurring in gender-inclusive restrooms at Connecticut College.  

The letter overall conflated the notion of “extra rights” for trans students with the notion that gender-inclusive restrooms are unsafe, playing into the common, bigoted view of trans people as sexual predators. The claim that this is about “extra rights” for trans students is incorrect and misleading. The only distinction that realistically matters after this resolution is between students who are uncomfortable in gender-specific restrooms and students who are uncomfortable in gender-inclusive restrooms (regardless of their gender identity). The way I see it, both groups are well accounted for equitably. While the comments may have been uncivil, they were certainly not “spurious.” 

Given the overblown way the candidate’s letter implicitly blames the trans community for asking for “extra rights” to the detriment of public safety, I argue it’s fair to understand this candidate as transphobic and criticize him for it even if you’ve never personally interacted with him. The letter shows him to be a transphobe to many, including myself, and I see it as justified to be criticized for it in political discourse. I do not defend all  critiques made against a candidate personally, but disconnecting the platform and candidate all together is something we almost never see in actual politics. Why would we ever hold an electorate to only critique a candidate’s platform? A political platform is a form of advertisement that’s specifically manufactured to be unhostile (and inclusive, ironically) at face-value. 

The candidate had another letter published a week after the blowback to his candidacy where he states that the odds of achieving consensus on the definition of hate-speech are “lower than my odds of becoming LUCC President.” Even before he was decimated, receiving only 6.25% of the vote for class rep, he knew full well that his candidacy was only a political statement. It was a virtue-signal, a provocation, or both and it was hidden behind a platform that adhered to certain standards of “respectable language”; this out-of-context desire for “respectability” is the reality of Dr. Barrett’s “Radical Respect.” 

Politics is messy and certainly not for the faint of heart. Only one-third our way through 2021, and the U.S has seen a record of more than 80 bills introduced targeting the rights of trans people. Is the passion one feels in defending a class of people whose humanity is under constant question reasoned? I say yes. Is it radically respectful? I don’t think political discourse will ever be — this is idealism at its worst. 

One student who has met with Dr. Barrett to talk about frustration with this email states: “Our conversation was respectful but I don’t think she understood my viewpoint, and that lack of understanding is what we’re talking about here.” An often-used saying for judging actions is that we should not attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance. Whether we are talking about Dr. Barrett (who I don’t think intends malice) or our candidate’s letter, regardless of their intent, they showed no solidarity to the trans community. Dr. Barrett’s email advocated for “Radical Respect,” but the criticism was one-sided: the lack of respect by the candidate towards the trans community was not mentioned at all; the blame was placed squarely on the community’s reaction to his running for student government. 

While I am often suspicious of attempts to be “apolitical,” this email has failed even at this. While I doubt it was the intention of Dr. Barrett, her email implicitly defended transphobia and criticized anti-transphobia. In response to a recent demand for a public apology by the Appleton Students for a Democratic Society, Dr. Barrett sadly doubled down, stating in an email “I do not believe that my issuing an apology under these circumstances will further our shared goals of social change for a more democratic society.” Regardless of the fact that one could say the same of her original email, this refusal to even give lip service to the trans community and anti-transphobic advocates is disappointing and greatly unfortunate in its lack of humility. 

We are at a time in history where we need to treat transphobia as intolerable in the same way other forms of bigotry are. This is what social change needs to look like. Dr. Barrett has failed us as the Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion to take these crucial steps.