With every major American societal revolution, there have been the conservatives, who advocate for social stability and against assumed “slippery slopes,” and the liberals, who advocate for periodic change and against social stigma. Both conservatives and liberals can be further subdivided into extremists and moderates. During the Civil Rights Movement, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X would both have been considered socially liberal, yet MLK’s nonviolent marches and speeches must have seemed at odds with Malcolm X’s more polarized ideology, which supported violence in the name of progressivism.
In an Ethics seminar a few weeks ago, my classmates and I discussed the necessity of extremism in progressive movements. The class concluded that both moderates and extremists are necessary for societal change, but with a caveat—while extremists help to shake up a relatively stationary social sphere by bringing issues to public light, moderates can make certain perspectives relatable on a more individualized level. Malcolm X’s more extreme platform made enough headlines to raise awareness for the importance of civil rights, but we remember MLK as the humanitarian leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
It is the trend of American society to battle over these social movements on a generational basis. Each few decades, Americans look back on their ancestors and wonder how in the world people used to endorse slavery, segregate schools and keep the vote from women. And each few decades, we grow up with a new social norm that teaches us we are beyond the faults of our ancestors. These days, social issues are often more intangible than slavery, segregation and disenfranchisement. Progressives now fight against conservatives about the subtle detriments of the patriarchy and white privilege, to provide a few examples. Conservatives often respond to these social critiques by denying their very existence.
The issue with such impalpable social causes is that there are rarely any unifying public policy initiatives that can mobilize people collectively for expedited progressivism. Compare this type of intangible progressivism with LGBT equality movements, which can rally behind gay marriage as a political vehicle through which to instigate change. There is no clear political goal that individuals opposing the patriarchy can set that will relate to those who doubt its very existence. This is problematic because as social issues have changed to become more intangible, extremism has changed to make opposing groups more polarized. Extremism might be effective when formulating public policy, but in order to change phenomena that cannot effectively be countered by the government, moderation is necessary in order to allow for change at the individual level.
When students debate things like privilege on Duke’s campus, extremism does not surface in the form of violence, but in a strict “with us or against us” mentality. In a recent column, I applauded Common Ground for giving me the privilege to truly understand the impact of my words and actions on those around me. The retreat remains a hallmark of my Duke experience, but the direction some discussions there took concerned me. When participants discussed gender, for instance, the men were told it was their time to listen. When someone suggested that women and men are both responsible—but to varying degrees—for the gender disparities at Duke, her perspective was shot down by another individual who held the opinion that all men, and no women, should be held responsible for the patriarchy. Some women might objectify men and others might discredit feminism, but they do so only as a result of the patriarchy they grew up in. Similar attitudes surfaced regarding race, socioeconomic status and sexuality.
I disagree with the notion that being a victim of unfair social conditions absolves an individual of the responsibility of doing his or her part in fighting social stigma. In addition, I feel disappointed in the unwavering positions many Duke students seem to take from their first steps on campus. “You’re either with us or against us” might be effective in broadening perspective for the self-selecting participants at Common Ground, who usually sign up for the retreat to hear about others’ experiences, but for the average student at Duke the attitude is extremely divisive.
When someone doubts the existence of the patriarchy or does not fully understand what privilege is, liberals should not respond by demonizing and blaming him or her. Doing so makes moral reconciliation an impossible goal. Students should not seek to persecute one another, but to understand opposing viewpoints. When we disagree about social phenomena, we should question why individuals who share a human existence could think so differently about an issue before trying to jump to an answer that we have likely adhered to for as long as we can remember. The social struggles that we experience at Duke cannot be remedied by a handful of students exclaiming, “F--- the patriarchy!” To counter our generation’s social stigmas, we must begin conversations with an open mind. While future generations will certainly look back and wonder how people ever doubted the white man’s social privilege, we must realize that the complex solutions to these deeply rooted social biases can only be found in tolerant unison.
Brendan McCartney is a Trinity sophomore. This is his final column of the semester.