What’s Goin’ On? Some thoughts on my town.

“Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware. When I turned to politics I did not have too much to learn.”- C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary

This was never meant to be just a basketball blog.  And, even to the extent that it is primarily a basketball blog, I’ve meant to use it to show the many ways that to talk about basketball is always to talk about other things at the same time, even when we don’t explicitly say so, even when we aren’t aware of it.  And so, for example, when I’ve talked about the Fab Five and about the Michigan basketball teams of the early 90s and about how the University administration has handled their legacy, I’ve tried to make it clear and explicit that we are talking about much more than basketball:  we are talking about the business of intercollegiate athletics, we are talking about institutional policies, we are talking about culture, we are talking about race and class, and we are talking about universities and what they might stand for or, at least, be good for.

I’m a Michigan faculty member and have been for twenty years.  But I also live in another world.  I’m also a full time resident of Oberlin, Ohio.  And as anybody with an internet connection, a television, or even just an old-fashioned newspaper subscription knows, something’s been happening in Oberlin over the past several weeks. That “something” has affected me personally and that something overlaps in some fundamental ways with the things I usually write about here.  And so I feel impelled — even compelled — to share some feelings and reflections on that something.

I will not recapitulate the narrative of events in Oberlin.  However, the first thing I feel compelled to say is that if you are getting your news about Oberlin from the national and international news media you are not getting an adequate picture of just what has been going on.  Fortunately, Oberlin students (sometimes in collaboration with a few Oberlin faculty members) have taken the time to provide more complete and detailed accounts of events.  I recommend to you, for example, a lengthy article, published just yesterday, detailing the history of recent events that has led the campus to where it is and, in the process, has corrected or filled in important gaps in national and international media coverage of events.  Simultaneously, a tumblr has been set up in which members of the campus community have continued to report and to discuss what’s going on.

But the main thing I’ve noticed and so the main thing I want to address here concerning this spate of incidents of hate speech and physical assaults and the response they have triggered from various individuals and groups on campus is this:  feelings.  It is as though the events of recent weeks have pulled away a veil — or a scab — that had been obscuring the depth and intensity of feelings arising from the experience of racial, ethnic, and gender differences and injustices based on those differences.  Many students, and some faculty members, are frightened, confused, on-edge, angry, frustrated, and exhausted.  Others, who may appear to be less frightened and angry, seem no less confused.  Still others seem to just be fed-up and to want it all to just go away.

As I say, I live in two worlds, so to speak, and in Oberlin, I’m a “townie” (though being a “townie” in a tiny midwestern town dominated by a liberal arts college” doesn’t necessarily imply what it did when I grew up as a townie in Madison, Wisconsin, where the university, enormous though it is, remains just one of a number of large employers and so just one among a number of centers of gravity).  Still, I’m a townie and I’m eager that my reflections not be construed as my pontificating to a college community of which I am not, directly, a member regarding how it ought to be handling its affairs.

That said, I am wondering just what “it” is that some people wish would just go away.  If it’s incidents of hate speech and physical assault, or racism, anti-semitism, sexism, and hetero-normativity, then of course I share the feeling:  I wish these would go away too.  But if it’s feelings on issues of race, ethnicity and gender,or feelings about the responsibility that a college community and its faculty and administration in particular bear toward its students (and toward each other) in times of crisis or at any time, or feelings about how we use language and how we understand its impact on those who have had different experiences than we have, or feelings about how to respond to someone in our community who approaches us with a tale of suffering, then I feel differently.

I don’t think these should go away, or rather, I don’t think they will go away, at least not until the other stuff (see above) goes away. And so I don’t think it’s constructive or in consonance with either educational or ethical imperatives to imagine that they will, nor to behave towards those expressing them as though they should; as though there were a 24 second clock for the expression of feeling at the end of which one needs to just hoist up a desperation three point shot of “reason.”

Earlier this week, an old friend of mine, a Zen teacher in Detroit with a history of political activism (I say this so that “Zen teacher” will not immediately trigger images of quietism), shared with his students some tenets of peacekeeping (I believe he drew them from Bernie Glassman).  I think they express pretty well what I wish for my town right now, for my friends, for my wife and for her students, and for myself.  Here they are:

Not knowing. Bearing witness. Healing.

My friend went on to share some further elaboration on each, which I am adapting (you can find the full exposition here):

“Not-Knowing is entering a situation without being attached to any opinion, idea or concept. This means total openness to the situation, deep listening to the situation.  It is our role to bear witness. We can stay in the realm of not-knowing, the realm of blissful non-attachment. But we live in the world of attachment, for that is also the world of empathy, passion, and compassion. Ultimately, we accept all the difficult feelings and experiences that arise as part of every-day life as nothing but ways of revelation, each pointing to the present moment as the moment of enlightenment. Bearing witness gives birth to a deep and powerful intelligence that does not depend on study or action, but on presence. We bear witness to the joy and suffering that we encounter. Rather than observing the situation, we become the situation. We became intimate with whatever it is – disease, war, poverty, death. When we bear witness we’re simply there, we don’t flee. Loving Actions are those actions that arise naturally when we enter a situation in the state of not-knowing and then bear witness to that situation.”

It’s hard, perhaps especially hard for educators, at least those with a strong sense of responsibility, to abide this position and so to acknowledge that we don’t have answers, that we can’t fix this or that student’s problem.  And when we confront the limits of our abilities in this way, we can feel like failures or frauds, and feel ashamed.  And when we feel ashamed — even, or especially, if we are not aware of the feeling — we can begin to push back defensively, to guard ourselves with reason, and with an invocation of the ineluctable imperatives of the everyday (i.e. “after all, we have to have that exam at some point, we have to draw the line somewhere”).  But to the degree that we do, I think, we are doing that fleeing thing.  And in fleeing we deprive ourselves of the very resources that exist within us and in our connectedness and belonging to a community that actually are, in themselves, indispensable elements of the fix or solution we began by feeling so hopelessly incapable of providing.

Not knowing.  Bearing witness.  Healing.  Too simple, perhaps; perhaps too hard.  But it is where I would like for myself to start, wherever I am, whatever is going on.

Postscript

On Monday, among the events organized to address these events at Oberlin, in lieu of regular classes, was a rally and march.  I attended the rally.  I was pleased to see there in attendance a group of Oberlin men’s basketball players, along with one of their assistant coaches.  I greeted the players, most of whom I already knew and told them and their coach that it was important that they were there, bearing witness.  One of the players, an especially tall one, showed his teammates a small pink placard that read:  “OCMBB Supports You!,” with a smiley face.  The short rally, attended by hundreds, featured a few speakers and concluded with some logistical instructions about the route our march through town was going to take.  As the group began to disperse, shuffling into a loose line for the march, I said to the player, who had the small sign stuffed in his pocket, “Yo, my bro, you oughtta hold up your sign.”  He looked at me for a second, then pulled the sign half out of his pocket, and shook his head, smiled, and said “Nah, pink’s not really my color” before moving along to join the march.  I wanted to stop him and to say “What do you mean pink’s not your color?  Never mind.  I know what you mean: you’re afraid.  A tall man of color proudly holding up a pink sign?  What else would they think but ‘baller’s gay.’  But man you gotta understand that this is all one struggle, that the struggle of LGBTQ students is the struggle of people of color like yourself is the struggle of privileged white men like myself.  It’s all one struggle.”  But I stopped myself. I didn’t really know him.  I didn’t want to lecture him.  I didn’t want to call him out, or alienate him.  He was already feeling uncomfortable.  I didn’t know what to do.  So I just laughed half-heartedly and said, “It oughta be.”  We were there, both of us experiencing feelings only some of which we were able to articulate, and probably many others we weren’t even aware of, trying in our imperfect ways to bear witness.  We didn’t know what to do.  So we were just there, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, “Ever trying. Ever failing.  No matter.  Trying again.  Failing again. Failing better.”

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