Compassion is not partisan

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Photo by Hannah Green

It’s not often that I feel compelled to send a piece of commentary to a newspaper, but something happened to me over the weekend that doesn’t sit right with me. 

On Sunday morning, I learned that I had been misrepresented and misquoted in an article about the campus response to that infamous photo of University of Dallas students at a party wearing a costume depicting a border wall and a mustachioed man named “José.”

To be sure, the article was not published by The University News, and it wasn’t even really about me. You might even say that the bits in it about me were mere throwaway lines, but what the article was doing gave me cause for concern, and I’m hoping that by writing about it, I can redeem an experience that’s divided members of our beloved community.

The article portrays me as a radical liberal (which, in the context of the journal in question, is an undeniably bad thing to be) for trying to extend some compassion to my students.

Here’s what actually transpired: I invited my students to discuss—in class or with me privately—their reactions to the photo. My decision to do so had sprung from two recent conversations in which members of the UD community told me they felt devastated by the photo.

In that light, I wanted to make sure that any offended students had a sympathetic ear, one that reflected the care and compassion of our university. In other words, I was trying to do my job.

I was quoted by what the article claims is an anonymous student who is taking one of my classes.

According to the source, I took time out of class to refer to the costume incident as “racist,”, “hateful” and “traumatizing.”

I took issue with these quotes for a number of reasons. 

First, they weren’t my words, and I have the Zoom recordings to prove it. Second, these words are loaded terms in today’s culture wars and the last thing I’d like to do is alienate any member of my class because of his or her place in said wars. Third, two of those words could be taken to impute insidious motives to the individuals responsible for the photo, and I am fervently opposed to such an uncharitable interpretation of that photo, although the question of whether systemic racism can be unconscious and internalized is a serious one on which reasonable people can disagree.

As it turns out, one of my former students, of whom I have fond memories and for whom I have respect, was in that photo. Why would I want to malign their character? I have no interest in seeing punishments meted out, and I am repulsed at the idea of shaming anyone in public. That’s why I’m not naming any of them, and that’s why I’m not naming the author of the piece, or even the name of the journal that published it.

Was the costume racist? Depends on your definition. Was it hateful? Depends on the motives of the people involved, and I’m inclined to interpret the costume as an attempt to be funny that backfired. Was it hateful? I really doubt it. I mostly just think it was imprudent.

But was it traumatic? I don’t know. For the answer to that question, you’d have to talk with people about what happened. That’s what I was trying to do when I brought up the topic to my class, and that outreach resulted in me being completely misconstrued.

But hear me out. Even as I run the risks of condescension and virtue-signaling for getting on my high horse just to say something as banal as this: compassion is not partisan. 

You can be disturbed by that photo without being a radical. And you can be compassionate to the costumed students (or to anyone, for that matter!) without being reactionary. That is, showing compassion doesn’t make you a Democrat or a Republican, a progressive or a conservative.

To tie the story up, I’ve since received several apologies and the journal has added my comments to the original piece, since I had not been interviewed or otherwise made aware of it prior to its publication.

I leave you with this: 2020 is hard enough for all of us, and so, by all means, call attention to injustice when you see it, but to the extent that you are able, cut people some slack. Check in with them from time to time to see how they’re doing. There will almost certainly come a time soon when you’ll be glad someone did the same for you.

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