Living True North

old compass
“It is about having a moral compass and knowing north.”

Shortly after the November election, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about the tensions many college presidents  felt in the week since the presidential election. Many of them reached out to their students while not sending an overtly political message. On my deans and directors list serve many administrators, especially those from state-supported institutions, walked this fine line. Many worried that any email that hinted at a political statement would be considered, at worst, illegal and, at best, inappropriate. Yet they wanted to reach out to their students to send a message of hope or at least comfort. Others talked about how their otherwise peaceful towns and campuses had been converted, during the election, to contentious, hostile places where minority students no longer felt safe. Hard stop. No longer felt physically safe. The writer of one post conceded, “They do not believe our institution will protect them. They are right….”Other educators reported acts of violence and violation on their campuses. The Chronicle of Higher Education detailed these acts. The list is long and grows longer. And these are the incidents that were serious enough to be reported. Consider the daily acts of intentional humiliation and denigration that minority students endure that never make the press.

I recall the events surrounding the election because the shocking neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville brought to the surface the roiling hatred validated and emboldened through the presidential campaign. But it did not start there.  The events in Charlottesville are the dénouement of a story that has been written for years.  I wish I could say that I have never heard or seen such bold acts of violence before, but as a child of the Civil Rights era, I have. And, as the daughter of parents who watched Fascism explode through Europe, I have. There were people in each generation who worked tirelessly to fight those glaring evils. Clearly, we are called, once again, to continue that effort.

Advocating for basic values of democracy, speaking out against acts of violation and marginalization is not about being a Democrat or a Republican. It is about being human. It is about being a moral and ethical imperative that allows us to retain our humanity. For me, it is about fighting indecency—the indecency of intentional violation. It is about having a moral compass and knowing north. I am reminded of Lillian Hellman’s words when she was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” There is never a time when spray painting a swastika on a dorm room door is right. There is never a time when confronting Muslim women and demanding they remover their hijabs is right. There is never a time when shouting homophobic epitaphs is right. There is never a time when shouting Nazi slogans is right.

What is at stake as the list grows is that these acts can infect policy and deliberate cruelty can become routinized if not legalized. These are acts of intentional cruelty; they are displays of dominance based on beliefs of superiority; they are manifestations of xenophobic aggression emboldened by shameful political rhetoric that intentionally creates and scapegoats the Other as the cause of misery. Nothing makes these acts right. Shortly after the election I wrote to students asking them to remember who they are. This memory not only impacts what we do as advocates for social justice, but impacts who we become as a nation. It is not about us and them. It is about us; about who we are and who we will become. Our mandate as professional social workers is to act, to speak out and to be incisive in our vision of policy. How we articulate this mandate shapes us as individuals, as practitioners, as citizens as much as it shapes the landscape and future of our nation. We speak out against these acts because not to do so changes us.
In the words of Elie Wiesel,

One day a Tzadik came to Sodom…. He preached to the people. “Please do not be murderers, do not be thieves. Do not be silent and do not be indifferent.” He went on preaching day after day….But no one listened. He was not discouraged. Finally someone asked him, “Rabbi, why do you do that? Don’t you see it is no use?” He said, “I know it is of no use, but I must…. In the beginning I thought I had to protest in order to change them…..Now I know I must picket and scream and shout so that they should not change me.”Source: Quoted in Wiesel, Elie. One Generation AfterWords from a Witness, NY: Schocken Books, 1982: 52.

As we renew our efforts to speak out against evil, to work against those forces that divide, degrade and harm us, may we maintain and renew our commitment to fight injustice guided by our moral compass and our deep commitment to social justice.  May we not be changed in our resolve or our knowledge of what is right.

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