As students committed to social justice, I would argue that we have the responsibility and capability to choose how we approach the subject and how we engage those whom we address in our efforts to correct these injustices. Yet, these are highly emotionally charged issues. Can allowing emotion into the equation yield benefits or do the risks outweigh the potential advantages?
The seething rage we have seen in response to the burning of the Quran in Afghanistan is perhaps the most extreme example possible of a group responding to what they consider a slight against their culture or ethnicity. More commonly, one might witness a person, while trying to illustrate the struggles of an oppressed group, expressing frustration or even anger at the ignorance of his or her audience to the myriad injustices prevalent in modern society. Angry sentiments are often voiced at rallies or protests that strive to correct social injustices. Sometimes a condescending or lecturing tone may be taken when attempting to correct an individual who has uttered a racist statement. At times, this emotion can be effective in getting a listener to acknowledge injustices that may have been overlooked or ignored. Fox’s When Race Breaks Out is very insightful in spelling out the dynamics of both allowing heated argument and requiring a calmer discussion (2009).
I would argue that, both at the individual and macro level, that there are two approaches one could take in fomenting change. I have adopted these two tacks from Marable’s “liberal, democratic and populist tendency” and “radical, egalitarian tendency” (2004, p. 322). The former strategy involves working from within a system to effect change. On a personal level, this might involve such practices as striving to be sensitive to the other person’s socially instilled racist ideas and attempting to avoid judgment. Such a technique would avoid the erection of defensive reactions that might inhibit openness to the new ideas presented. On a societal level, this might be working one’s way into a position (i.e. leadership) with the potential to bring about positive change.
The latter strategy (radical egalitarian) might be thought of as the frontal assault. In this course of action, the social justice activist might attempt to leverage shock, anger, and shame in order to bring about consciousness to an injustice and incite positive change. Rather than accept gradual change in the current system, this approach would seek to wipe away the old and usher in the new. In effect, this would attempt a coup d’état.
I suggest that, with the benefit of our training in social justice issues and the consciousness it entails, with the power of the leadership positions we will assume, and with the passion we hold for these issues, college students have the ability to shape the discourse in the future. We can choose the nature of these dialogues by leveraging all of the above resources. We can all be teachers of and advocates for social equity.
The question I pose is this: are those who fight for equality better served by a nuanced, subtle approach, like a surgeon or by a blunt force attack, like that of a heavyweight boxer? Do we risk dismissal by appearing weak and conciliatory? Do we risk marginalization as liberal nuts if we let our anger show and demand what we believe in? If emotion truly brings about empathy, how can we best leverage it towards social change? I look forward to your thoughts.
Fox, H. (2009) When race breaks out. New York, NY; Peter Lang Publishing.
Marable, M. (2004) Changing global structures. In D. Eitzen & M. Zinn (Eds.), Globalization: the transformation of social worlds (pp. 317-322). Belmont, CA; Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Author Bio: Edward Ellingson is a graduate student at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He will graduate in May 2012 with a Master of Arts degree in Sociology.