Friday, October 18, 2013

Batman versus the counterpunch

Originally published in The Mac Weekly.


***

As a Managing Editor who stays in the office late into layout every Wednesday night, I have the repeated pleasure of editing Richard Raya’s opinion pieces. They never lack in enthusiasm, both in content and style.

Nevertheless, Raya and I come from very different intellectual backgrounds, and I feel compelled to chime into the debate over extending MCSG membership to those students on academic/disciplinary probation.

My main problem with last week’s piece (“Angry Counter-Punch”) is the number of straw man arguments presented. These straw men are at the argument’s foundation- defining camps as “we” and “you.” On the “we” side, Raya identifies himself and those forced off of MCSG (Zilton and Doten) with “those of us with… salient identities in terms of race, class, sex, gender, sexuality and ability.”
It is worth noting that one of the supposed “you” targets of Raya’s column, Jeff Garcia, maintains a “salient identity in terms of race” as a member of the student group Adelante! that ought to place him in the “we” category.

A quick scan of those who signed the petition to oppose KWOC’s occupation of Weyerhaeuser last semester reveals more people mistakenly placed in Raya’s camp- working class, LGBTQ, students with mental health illnesses, individuals of many races. The comparison isn’t perfect- there were plenty of white, straight or otherwise privileged individuals who signed the petition, and some of the signers may have disapproved of both KWOC’s occupation and the strong punishment of the occupation’s participants. Still, it is clear that some students with “salient identities” have voiced their support for the administration Raya decries.

Further, the categorization of “you” as those “who have disagreed with/belittled the perspective of Doten and Zilton” is offensive. It is clear Raya does not understand the mindset of those of “us” who he sets out to oppose. For example, he asks “us” (those who disagreed with Doten and Zilton’s op-eds), “Have you no empathy? And have you forgotten how to aspire, to dream?”

No. This is a straw man—I can disagree with Raya, Doten and Zilton while having empathy. When asked, I insist that I am a bleeding heart libertarian—I don’t like violence and taxation and all sorts of institutions of domination precisely because they harm people’s autonomy and prevent a better world. And in contrast, I generally fear that Raya’s worldview threatens the realization of our aspirations and dreams of a better world.

He writes, “To constantly burn down, reshape, and reconstruct in service of the goal of a more fair and just world—a future where people don’t have to be branded “radicals” when simply trying to exist fully, unfettered—is the responsibility that comes with the gift of any modicum of freedom.”

Burning down and reconstructing institutions always involves violence or collateral damage. Here I will engage in a straw man of my own. In Batman Begins, Ra’s al-Ghul identifies Gotham City as a cesspool of moral decay. Batman of course wants to save the city, but Ra’s wants to purge the blighted place from existence and rebuild anew. “We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats. Burned London to the ground,” Ra’s al-Ghul declares. “Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.”

Obviously nobody wants to take a mindset of “burning down” and “reconstructing” to that extreme. The Black Death? No thanks.

Raya could hit back with his own straw men. What of slavery in America! Or genocide against Native Americans? Obviously I don’t approve of those or any other number of unjust acts perpetrated or permitted by individuals or institutions in power throughout history.

We aren’t really getting anywhere by taking our respective ideologies to their respective extremes, so let me bring it back to the real world. There is an argument to be made for Doten’s proposal that qualifications for MCSG membership ought to be extended to those on academic/disciplinary probation if they were duly elected to their position.

However, that argument should have nothing to do with “true democracy” or opposing “Western canonization in education” or supporting Hammurabi’s codes or bolstering a republican form of government. This is student government, not the Lyceum.

So let’s have the debate about MCSG and academic/disciplinary probation, but it is time to take the debate off this high horse.

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