Prof. Amber Scoon’s Speech in the Wake of the US Election
Prof. Dr. Amber Scoon (GCAS Faculty) delivered a speech at her local community college (Greenfield Community College, a gem in western Massachusetts). The speech was written in response to her students who were really upset after the election.
I come to you all today in order to share stories about the necessity of diversity: in our schools, in our work places, in our every day lives.
Diversity is not something we strive for, after all the other factors have been considered. It is not secondary. It is fundamental and necessary. We cannot learn, work or live without it
We can embrace it: that is, the infinite differences between us. Or we can attempt to ignore it, repress it, assault it. The differences themselves, will not go away, even in the most homogenous communities. What I want to say today is that any attempt to separate humans, according to their differences, any attempt to contain and belittle those humans and their differences, is also and always, an assault on our ability to think, to learn, to educate, to be creative and to be healthy.
I have come to speak to you all today specifically because of the distress of my students: Students from all walks of life, students from around the world; students with different political backgrounds. Their distress is not about democrats and republicans or winning and loosing.
My students are distressed over hateful remarks made by the media spectacle, that IS the president elect: a spectacle which promotes bullying, sexual assault, sexual harassment and racism; a spectacle which promotes bigotry toward immigrants, those suffering from mental illness, people living with learning disorders, people of mixed races and nationalities, Jewish people, Muslim people, refugees and anyone who seems at all different. In short, the president elect has just bullied and insulted every single young American.
I find it necessary to say something, out loud, which seems like common sense. Diversity means that there are differences between us. These differences are necessary. They are natural and inherent. Without them, we would quite literally get sick. We find that in ecosystems, within species and within the human body, we need differences in order to withstand natural disaster, fight diseases and recover from the unexpected.
To artists, the need for differences is intuitive. We love newness and the unknown. We like to travel and be exposed to cultures that are unlike our own. We like artworks that surprise us. We like a story with a twist at the end. We never make the same doodle twice. We are as different as our handprints and we guard the love of those differences like a mother guards her children.
To educators, the effort to celebrate diversity and the effort to end bullying, go hand in hand. This is because learning ends when students are afraid to express themselves. There is a clear correlation between a student’s ability to expressed diverse and often conflicting ideas, and the presence of learning. The free expression of different ideas yields a richer, more creative and more engaged learning.
Imagine that a group of students are given a problem to solve. They discuss. If the students feel unsafe, one student will become the voice for everyone. She or he will present a solution and his or her colleagues will mutter that they agree. Without any feedback, positive or negative, the student’s idea stops there. So the first idea is the idea that’s put forward. Invariably, this solution is weak.
Now imagine that these students feel safe and capable of articulating their many different ideas. The first idea is met with a second. The second is met with a third that negates the first. The fourth offers a new solution. The fifth is a variation on the fourth. The sixth presents a problem about the nature of the original question. The seventh offers a different way to interpret the question and therefore answer the problem. The process begins again from the start. THIS is learning: the gathering and comparing of many different ideas and viewpoints, such that a distance grows between my ideas and your ideas, between our first idea and our fifth idea, between my idea then and my idea tomorrow, and in this gap: in the distance between differences: learning and growth occurs. Without it, we don’t have a lesser form of learning, we have no learning at all
An attack on diversity is quite literally an attack on our ability to learn.
How can we promote differences, in a practical way, in our every day reality? In my classroom, I encourage students to tell their stories. Why? Because when stories are shared, immediately, critical thinking occurs. Why did you respond like that, when I responded like this? Without any additional prompt, students, and people in general, put themselves in each others’ shoes. And if they stay there, for just a few moments, they have an incredible opportunity: they gain knowledge that on their own they would have never achieved, their perspectives widen, their ability for empathy grows and they learn to examine a problem from multiple viewpoints. This kind of learning allows us to exercise one of our most important and exciting capacities—our capacity, as humans, to practice self-reflection. It is what separates us, as far as we know, from animals. And it is probably the only thing that can save us, and our planet, from destruction.
It is not my job to teach students how to make art, although sometimes students want this. It is not my job to teach students which philosophy to follow, although sometimes students wish for this. It is my job to create a safe space in which students can realize that they have choices. It is not a matter of helping students choose this or that, but helping them realize that there is a choice to be made.
I encounter, in my students, a natural desire for freedom and fun, an anger regarding the world they has been given to them, and a sensation of helplessness and insignificance as if they are cogs in a system that has no place for them.
There are also students who have been so well protected that they feel no danger. I was recently surprised that a student responded to an interview of the incredible artist and film maker, Shirin Neshat, by saying, disparagingly, “She seems like an angry feminist”. To which I responded, “Wouldn’t you be angry if you were in her shoes?” And she said, “Its really just not that bad.”
This worries me. There is a tendency to forget our history, even if it is only one generation removed, even if it is only a decade behind us. And there is also a tendency to accept our situation as the best of all the possibilities, as the best that we can do, as if they table has been set and now our only job is to re-arrange silverwear. There is a tendency to not tell our stories; especially our personal or ugly stories. Why? We don’t tell them because we know that we will be shamed. Someone will say, “Hey stop whining, be stronger, it’s really just not that bad.” And in our vulnerable state, we will swear to never share again.
So here I am to share my stories with you all. I share in the hopes that it will encourage diverse people to share their infinite stories. And in this sharing, we will find learning, the ability to think critically, imagination, creativity, empathy and problem solving. Because in my mind, the most urgent need today, is the creation of new ideas. In order to create new ideas, not just criticize or adjust what we have, we need the ability to think and to be creative. We need fearless ideas that will not only dismantle systems that do not work, but create new ones.
Do not fret over the world that has been given to you. It is your job, now, to create the world that you would like to live in.
Alain Badiou recently wrote, “the duty of the artist is to look in language for the new resources of an epic that would no longer be that of the aristocracy of knights but the epic of the people in the process of creating another world.”
Person to person story telling has a special power. And this is the reason that instead of publishing this essay, I’m standing here today, speaking to you. Wolfgang Schirmacher, the great philosopher who founded the European Graduate School, said that philosophy is not meant to be an inactive reflection on the past, but an active event in the present.
Here are three stories from my life, in which I encountered bullying.
When I was in elementary school, I had a bully. She was mean and aggressive and she threatened to beat me up and she told lies about me to my friends and my teachers. At some point, she told my teachers that I had been raped. There was a very serious meeting that came next, and I remember hearing a long story about how someone had told everyone that she had a C-section instead of giving birth naturally and the discomfort she felt about people knowing something personal about her, even though she hadn’t done anything wrong. I remember thinking, “What exactly did I do wrong?” Eventually she told me about how she knew that I had been raped. I was very young and I don’t remember being terribly upset, mostly just confused. Everyone seemed irritated except me. As a child, I was extremely safe. I didn’t need someone to stand up for me. This bully was not able to hurt me. Although isn’t it quite strange that in order to shame me, the crime that she concocted was that I was a victim of sexual assault. In her young mind, the most shameful thing that could happen, would be to have everyone know that I had been a victim of sexual violence. The perpetrator, in her mind, didn’t matter at all.
I remember understanding that there was a problem with this sort of thinking, but I wasn’t able to express it. I just said that this girl was lying and that her lies didn’t both me at all.
When I was in junior high, my friend got robbed. The two guys who robbed my friend were older and they had knives. After they took my friend’s disc-man (remember those?), I told them something like. “Watch out. I have people. And they will eventually find you.” They gave the object back and left. Again, I wasn’t vulnerable. In my mind, my brothers were my people. In my mind, they were invincible and on my side and this gave me infinite courage. I spoke as if I had the entire universe ready to protect me.
In the workforce, I encountered something entirely different. Bullying or some form of hazing is built into so many professional systems. It’s built into academia, into the military and into the medical professions. The message is clear: I will threaten you by asking you to do unreasonable things, often things that are unhealthy, I will threaten you by letting you know that I have power over you, I will threaten you by humiliating you. And you will accept. If you speak up, you will loose your job. I have encountered this so many times, that my stories could fill a book. But I’m going to give you one particularly relevant story today.
In Texas, a student of mine made a series of threats. Some were sexual and appeared to be directed at me. I was asked to give a statement to the police. The police followed the student for about a week. They interviewed him. They told me clearly that the student was unstable and that his anger was indeed directed toward me. I was specifically advised to arm myself and to be careful when I was alone. I was also told, “He knows where you live. You don’t live alone do you?” I did, in fact, live alone.
In an effort to get help, not at first for myself, but for the student who I feared was not well, I went through the proper channel of authorities. At this point, I was called into a meeting, for which I was given no context or explanation. A large man, in a position of administrative authority, sat me in a room and closed the door. Across an absurdly long table, he proceeded to scream at me. He pointed a finger at me. He belittled me. He threatened me. He let me know, without using any clear or constructive logic, that I had committed a huge crime, that I was in danger of loosing my job and that I was stupid. He taunted me like a bully in a schoolyard. Except this time, I was extremely vulnerable. Without my job, I couldn’t pay my mortgage and my student loans. Without a positive reference from my peers, all of my hard work in this strange land would be worthless. Without safety as school, I would not be able to survive, mentally. This administrator’s words were abusive. His intention was to frighten me. There was nothing professional about the meeting and so, what was to stop him from going further? Would he lay a hand on me? At this thought, I stood up and headed for the door. He screamed at me to sit down and not to dare trying to leave the meeting. He said I was unprofessional and hurled insults. With the adrenaline of an infinite army, I went straight for the door, knowing that if I needed to, I could probably lift the entire university, this man included, and throw it into the Gulf.
I went to my chair, to my dean and to my Provost, in other words I went up the chain command in terms of my supervisors. I was told, “I’m so sorry, it has happened to me too, in the exact same way!” I was told, “I’m so sorry, I’m going to do everything I can to keep you safe.” For some time nothing happened.
I decided to take a leave of absence. I had been told, by the police, that I was not safe. And I was told by certain administrators to shut up. What could I do? At that point, I was called back to the police. This time, I was told, “What, are you scared? If you run scared now, they will win and you will loose.” He was explaining to me that I was being weak: a wimp; a coward. And if I left, it was unclear if I would have a job to return to.
So what next? I, in good faith, made a report of everything that had happened: The student’s display of violence, anger and mental illness. The times that he had confided in me that he felt physically out of control, about his collection of guns, the words he had written that referred to sexual assault, a painting that referred to rape, the police’s account that I was not safe and needed to arm myself.
I sent the letter that chronicled all of these events to all the proper channels. In the mean time, I received a police escort. All the while, my student, whose health and safety I feared for, received no help. The police escort made all of the students uneasy and when I went home I was still alone.
At this point, I was called back to speak with the police. I was told that I had “provoked” the student’s anger by being “too intimidating”. When I asked, why I was intimidating, he said that it was because I was a really well educated female and because I was younger than the student. So it became clear that according to the university, this situation was my fault. I had brought it on myself.
After some weeks I received a letter. It explained that my student had done nothing wrong and accused me of all sorts of things. The letter was an official threat. Of course, the sane people were embarrassed. But what was done? Nothing. I was made to feel, through a long and elaborate process, that I had caused my only sexual harassment, that I had caused a student’s mental health crisis, that when I went to ask for help on behalf of this student, that I was really accusing him, unjustly. Accusing him of what? According to the letter, I was unjustly accusing this student of having a mental health disorder and according to the letter, I had done so because I was prejudiced against returning veterans, a detail which had never come up in any my discussions with the student or the police.
So what’s going on? The student, who was clear about his suffering, received no help. His mental health was so taboo, that the mere mention of a student, a male student, a vet, having a mental health crisis, was considered a threat. I, who had been urged by my supervisors to report this student’s threat of sexual assault, violent language and cry for help, had been blamed for his behavior. I was to accept this. Lay the official letter articulating my shame down in a box, feel vindicated that although I’d been officially shamed, I had colleagues who understood me, and continue working.
The police told me that I should never, under any circumstances, come into contact with this student. The administration told me that I could not remove him from my two classes. Neither party seemed concerned about their contradictions.
In this situation, I was extremely vulnerable. There’s a letter out there that’s meant to make my feel ashamed and make sure that I do not speak up in the future. But I share it with you, because I want you to know that the threat of sexual harassment and assault is present in our workforce. I want you to know that bullying is built into our systems. I want you to know that every single woman that I know well, and every single man, has experienced or witnessed some version of this story.
I also share this story because its exposes the very dangerous stigma around mental health. The stigma is its own form of bullying because it tells you, through the common sense of the people you work with and live with, and through the daily interactions in our lives, that if you suffer from mental distress, it is your own fault, you are to blame and you should feel ashamed.
Mental illness can affect anyone. Mental illness can strike regardless of political background, financial situation, physical health, family situations or religion. It is not a question of weakness or strength. Just as everyone can break a bone, everyone is vulnerable to a mental health crisis. And as the death toll rises in school shootings, we would be wise to pay close attention to the mental health of our students and our community. Silence does not help people who suffer from mental illness.
We watch as our own very small children practice drills for the possibility of a shooter in our schools. And we hear the message, loud and clear, that only weak and screwed up people suffer from emotional crisis and mental health disorders. Those in crisis remain silent. And those who ask, on their behalf, put themselves in a dangerous situation. How many children will die?
A few years back, a wonderful NYPD cop helped me to understand this stigma. I am part of an organization called the World Trade Center Health Program. It provides medical care to people who were caught in the toxic dust cloud at Ground Zero on September 11th and the days after. This is an event that profoundly changed my life. Most of the people who come through the program are cops, firemen and construction workers. They are mostly male and older than me. On that day, I was in the waiting area with my headphones on. My ipod died long ago, but I was pretending to listen to music so that I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. There was a cop near me. He was still on active duty. He was really large and muscular. He was loud and he had a thick accent, maybe a Staten Island accent. He was the perfect image New York toughness. I was a little nervous around him. But he was talking about getting sinus infections. And the people around him had no advice. And he kept saying how painful they are and how he just gets them one after another. And since I too, once upon a time, suffered from ongoing sinus infections, I took my head phones off.
I said, “Excuse me. I also used to suffer from sinus infections. But here at the program, they give you this sinus rinse and I use it every day and since I started doing that, I have not had a single infection.”
He sort of froze for a moment. I thought maybe he would yell at me. But he said, “You know, I’m afraid to use that stuff, I’m afraid that when I use it, it will go down my throat and choke me.”
I said, “It doesn’t hurt at all. You hold your head down, like this, in the shower and the rinse goes right through, from one side to the other, without touching your throat, and it really works.”
He said, “And your sinus infections stopped?”
And were you there, on that day?
And where were you?
I was on the corner of Church, across from Ground Zero, with the Salvation Army truck, in front of the Saint Peter’s church.
His eyes softened and his body relaxed and he said, “I remember that truck. I remember where you were. I remember that you gave us coffee.”
I said, “Yes.”
Suddenly he had tears in his eyes and he said, “I want to say thank you.”
I said nothing.
Then he said something that has changed me forever.
He said, “You know what?”
“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t cry, just thinking about it.
And then again he said thank you and he left.
And at that point I realized something. I realized that even though I am an educated person, with a strong will and a critical mind, I had felt ashamed, every day, since that day, ashamed for feeling the effects of PTSD, ashamed of crying, ashamed of nightmares, ashamed of having trouble flying. And why was I ashamed? Not because of my upbringing or my own beliefs, but because of that general stigma, that stigma that says that only weak people suffer from mental distress.
And suddenly I felt both relief and anger. Relief because I understood that I was not weak. I was just normal. And anger because what kind of person blames a victim of violence?
Even though I was well read, well therapized, well loved by my friends, well sheltered by my family, there was only one way that I could understand that lesson: And that’s by hearing that incredibly strong, tough NYPD cop telling me, face to face, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t cry, just thinking about it.”
And so here I am to say that we need to share our stories. We need to share our stories because we need to learn, face to face, one story at a time, that people react to pain differently, that these differences are normal and that sharing our stories helps us to learn, to think, to heal, to create.
This is what educators do, every day. We provide a safe place to say, “This is my experience, what is yours? This is how I solved the problem, how did you? This was my reaction. What was yours?
When I was very young, I remember hearing phrases, often slang or swear words, that I didn’t understand. I would try them out, in different circumstances, to see how people would react. Then I would know that this phrase is funny or terrible or embarrassing or something else… and I’d get closer to its meaning. I had recently heard kids shouting, “That’s so gay!” I tried it out on my cousin, who was an adult. I remember that we were walking down some stairs, him in front and me trailing behind. He stopped and turned to me, shocked. He said, “Many of my friends are gay. That word is not an insult.” And so I understood, some people are gay, and even though I still didn’t know what gay meant, I understood that I shouldn’t use it as an insult because some of these gay people were our friends. It was only a moment, but it was quite powerful and I always remember it as a teacher.
Much of what I’m talking about today revolves around our use of language. Why is language so important? It is system that connects us all and allows ideas to spread quickly. It works like this: I use a word or phrase that indicates that someone or some type of person is worthless, unacceptable or less valuable. Very young people hear it before they understand it. They accept it into their vocabulary, and eventually, in their minds, it becomes a fact, even though they have no idea where that fact came from. These ideas become our common sense and they guide our everyday interactions. And so, words that threaten or belittle, become, eventually, the tools of violence.
It occurred to me, when I was watching the president elect’s media spectacle, that the president elect could not pass any one of my courses. And this is why. In my syllabus, there is a paragraph that I have been reading ever since I started teaching at the age of 24. It says,
Course Conduct: I expect students to be respectful and kind. Cell phones should be silenced and put away. Racist, sexist, homophobic or hateful language of any kind will not be tolerated. Students violating these rules will be asked to leave the class and will be marked as absent for that day.
I have become more and more strict about this rule, because I’ve noticed that students must feel absolutely safe in order to learn. And even if a few students feel unsafe, the learning of the entire class is slowed or even halted. Further, I’ve seen how students who might have used some kind of hateful or bigoted language, are forced to explain, in their own words, how they are thinking or feeling, and in doing so, we usually discover the root of that hatred, which is, without fail; fear or misunderstanding. The relief that happens, when students are released from their fear, is palpable. And I’ve had many experiences of students telling me, I used to be afraid of this kind of art or this kind of thinking, I was ashamed of this thing that I wanted to do, I was afraid of this kind of person or situation… and now I’m not.
And I want to re-iterate that this particular speech is made on behalf of all of my students and that I have students from red states and blue states, students from wealthy cities and impoverished ones, students from former communist countries, students from the Middle East and Asia, from Italy, students of hippy parents and students of conservative religious parents and all of them have come to me in anguish, not over the winning or loosing of this presidential election but because of the language of hate, which they feel is directed either at them or their friends. This language, a language which makes bigotry seem natural and good, as if we all knows its right and finally we can speak it out loud without fear, will not be met with silence.
For those of us who care, what should we do? There is often a sense that we need to organize and make a grand statement in order to make change in the world: to march, to become a leader, to read every piece of news and understand the inner-workings of the media. But there is another way that change happens. It is a more subtle form of change and there is no public reward. But it might be the most effective way to combat bullying and celebrate differences. It is the way in which we talk to each other, the way that we look at each other, the way that we interact with each other in our daily life. It’s in the many small and overlooked incidents: the way that we talk to our kids, to the check out person at the grocery story, to people in positions of authority as well as those who serve. Our language, both in words and in gesture, could be the greatest tool that we have: as educators, as citizens, patriots, as artists, as learners. Language that leads to freedom of thought is infinitely powerful.
In a meeting some years ago, a colleague of mine demonstrated the positive power of language. I sat around a table with about ten colleagues. The conversation was somewhat tense, but nothing unusual. We were discussing a potential new hire. I had been charged with spending a lot of time with her, partly since I was the only young female, partially because, for reasons beyond my understanding, people tend to reveal their intentions to me. And this woman, clearly, was not going to accept the job if it were offered to her. And I reported this to the group. Quickly, my chair, who is a wonderful person, got upset. He stood up, pointed a finger at me, yelled at me and accusing me of ridiculous things. I was totally shocked and I quickly looked around the table to my colleagues for support. Was this going to be normal? I was going to state a simple fact, which I had been charged with finding out, and I would be met with accusations, and screaming? All of my colleagues were looking at their hands with no intention to speak. My face began to feel hot. I could not imagine how to respond. If I, the only young untenured female, defend myself, will I be forever shunned and spend seven years wondering if I will get fired? This is not an unreasonable possibility. It has happened to my colleagues, all of them male. If I accept the blame quietly, am I admitting to some false charge? And before I could decide what to do, one of my colleagues stood up. And he said, “I do not want to conduct meetings where we point fingers and yell at each other.” He was tenured. He was not vulnerable. He spoke for me. I was grateful. The tension released. My chair later apologized.
All of the people in that particular situation are good people. This sort of thing happens to all of us: friends, enemies, colleagues—and in all sorts of places: in politics, in the workplace and in our homes. And so, it is so important that we protect the vulnerable and say: “This is not OK”, even when it calls attention to the situation at hand and makes everyone feel awkward. Being awkward is better than being silenced.
Recently, the artist Marina Abromovitcz, created a performance piece, called “The Artist in Present”. She sat, in the Museum of Modern Art, and invited one person at a time to sit, facing her. She lifted her head and made eye contact. Time after time, people were moved to tears. The simple activity of acknowledging, with eye contact, the presence of another human, is a positive experience that embraces our otherness. You are you and I am me and I accept that we are two and therefore not the same. And I see you. I still see you. Simple. Beautiful.
Paul Salopek is a journalist who has been walking around the world, documenting the endless stories of the people that he finds along the way. His project is called the “Out of Eden Walk”. He calls this kind of journalism, “Slow Journalism”. Instead of reporting only at the sight of conflict, only where the latest news story sends him, Paul reports on the everyday people that he meets, at his very slow pace, along his journey. He takes the time to listen and observe. National Geographic writes,
“Moving at the beat of his footsteps, Paul is walking the pathways of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age and made the Earth ours. Along the way he is covering the major stories of our time—from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival—by giving voice to the people who inhabit them every day. His words, as well as his photographs, video, and audio, create a global record of human life at the start of a new millennium as told by villagers, nomads, traders, farmers, soldiers, and artists who rarely make the news. In this way, if we choose to slow down and observe carefully, we also can rediscover our world.”
In John Berger’s book, “Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance”, he writes about the untold resistance of everyday people, not the kind of resistance that makes the news, but the kind of resistance that exists in our physical bodies, the kind of courage that exists in our daily reactions, the power of our language and interactions.
John Berger writes, “Today the desire for justice is multitudinous. This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organization, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, grief and finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strictest sense, incidental to that movement.
The promise of a moment is its future victory; whereas the promises of the incidental moments are instantaneous. Such moments include, life-enhancingly or tragically, experiences of freedom in action. (Freedom without actions does not exist.) Such moments- as no historical ‘outcome’ can ever be- are transcendental , are what Spinoza termed eternal, and they are as multitudinous as the stars in the expanding universe.”
We too, can re invent our world, one small interaction at a time, sharing one story at a time, with courage and human connection, by speaking up for each other when we can, asking for help when we can, and resisting silence.
Seek out diversity, even when it’s unknown and uncomfortable, protect it, revel in it, explore its beauty and be joyful.
All attempts to erase the differences between us should be considered an assault on education. All attempts to homogenize our diverse voices should be understood to be a threat to the ability of humans to think. All attempts to shame those who find themselves labeled as other, will be met with the voice of the educator who says, diversity is the foundation of learning and we will never cease to defend it.
 Alain Badiou. Poetry and Communism, p. 95. The actual text says “poet” and I changed it to artist, for the sake of this particular lecture.