The Stonehill Community Speaks Up; “It Needs to Get Better”
“It needs to get better: Listen up Theory Students” Professor Patricia Leavy reflects about the movement’s efforts in her Sociological Theories class:
One of my favorite quotes is: “The candle is not there to illuminate itself.” To me, this means knowledge should be put into action—to make visible what may be in darkness and to use our voices to break through silence—because it needs to get better. This is a class about ideas, about how our own individual lives unfold in a larger context that shapes us and that we in turn shape. This class is also about social justice and acting with compassion and equality in a world of stark inequalities. When we see how our lives impact the lives of others, when we start to see the road map between our micro-worlds and our macro-worlds, we are compelled to act accordingly. As Oprah Winfrey often says, and I concur, “When you know better, you do better.” So to me, this class has the potential to help each of us live more consciously and in turn improve our own lives and the lives of others. Let’s take a look back over the semester, and a look forward into the future.
Sometimes we act in the world as if we are sleepwalking through our lives and it is my hope that we all live our lives wide awake. Next time you are going to a store to pick something up think about Marx and consider the kind of store you are going to. Are you going to a big box store or a local business? Where was the item you are buying made, and why? What is the process that brought it from there to here—whose labor is imprinted in the object? If you are paying a low price, how is that afforded to you? I personally don’t want to live in a world of only big box stores and I don’t want to contribute to unfair working conditions here or abroad because I know there is no difference between my child and a child born elsewhere. So it needs to get better.
Durkheim has showed us that if we want to understand changes in non-material culture we must look to material culture which reflects cultural beliefs and values. We must do this on our own campus. When we look at the non-discrimination policy at Stonehill, a part of material culture, we will see that it does not protect people on the basis of sexual orientation. Does that reflect our values? Do we value homophobia? Do we value inequality? Do we value harassment? Do we value hate crimes? It needs to get better.
Weber teaches us to look at history if we are to make sense of our present. The lessons in history about the deep and dark dangers of inequality are all-too plentiful. Several years ago when the world was learning about the horrors of the Rwandan genocide through films like Hotel Rwanda I was honored to be invited to a dinner with Paul Rusesabagina (the movie Hotel Rwanda is about his experience in the genocide). I will never forget speaking with him and I want to share it with you. He was surprised when the world was silent as children were butchered in the streets—he was waiting for intervention, waiting for help. We asked him what his fears were now—he said the same thing is happening in Darfur, but the world has not learned, the world watches in silence. I am reminded of Noam Chomsky who said: “Silence is complicity.” It needs to get better.
I told you that the day after my talk with the Treasurer of the United States I went to the Holocaust Museum in New York. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to use my voice when so many have been denied. Recently when I was giving a book talk about Low-Fat Love at another college, one student asked me if one of the characters, Melville, was Jewish. I replied that I had not noted any religious background for any of the characters so no, Melville was not Jewish. The student replied: “Oh, because Melville was really cheap and I know a lot of Jewish people who are cheap so I thought he may be Jewish.” Needless to say I was utterly horrified. Instead of showing my horror I replied: “I am Jewish so when you say that it hurts my feelings.” The student did not reply. No one in the room said a word, as if it didn’t happen. It needs to get better. If you’re thinking that would never happen here, think again. Several years ago a Stonehill student wrote the following in one of his class papers: “I really like it that you’re funny. Jewish people like you and Jerry Seinfeld are funny.” I wrote the following on the student’s paper: “I realize you mean this as a compliment but in fact it is a stereotype and there are no “good” stereotypes so I encourage you to reflect on this.” In an effort to “save face” as Goffman said, instead of reflecting on my comments, the student took his paper to another professor in a different department. That white, male, Christian professor later emailed me that he felt sorry for his embarrassed student because he believed the student was trying to say something nice. It needs to get better.
It is important to remember what we have learned from feminist theorists: inequalities limit our chances for self-actualization, the innate right of every human being. But our inequalities are the result of our situations and we can change our situations. Our situations are also impacted by our self-esteem, as Cooley teaches us. Every semester I learn about female students starving themselves, denigrating themselves, belittling themselves and diminishing themselves. It needs to get better. It seems hardly a week goes by without hearing about a “bias incident” on this campus. Here I think about the late-great comedian George Carlin who talked about euphemistic language and how it conceals the truth. If we are to learn from Foucault then it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined. So the way we talk about things matters. So maybe we need to talk about racism, hate and hate crimes as just that, and not diminish them with the sterile term “bias incident.” It needs to get better.
We often say that knowledge is power. I would say that knowledge is responsibility. What are you going to do with what you have learned, because it needs to get better? So we each came into this class a few months ago, and now, these months later I hope each of us is a little better, and will continue to be. As you know I will be heading to DC in the Fall to speak with our government about diversity. I will take what I have learned from you and I will send a clear message: It needs to get better.