The way the world ends
I think the most surprising thing to come out of COVID19 is that:
- I've gained a lot of respect for the CMU administration. They responded to COVID19 well, in a way that fairly addressed most student needs.
- I've lost a lot of respect and/or hope in a large subset of the CMU student population. This is part of a wider trend that I've been observing from a distance over the past year, and is the topic of the post today.
Here's an example of what I think is wrong with public discourse in the US today. Link should be CMU-only, person has been anonymized to "P1".
- P1 posts an inflammatory Facebook comment alleging that the administrators are enabling racism and bigotry by deleting her off-topic posts on a larger group.
- In particular, P1 believes P1 should be an admin themselves. P1: "I accept that y'all don't think I'm qualified. I will be satisfied if we could get some black and latine and queer people as part of admin team."
- Admin: "I’ll let my soon-to-be wife know I’m not queer enough for you"
- P1's take was something like, oh, I'm sorry, but ok then, "I will reiterate my point about the lack of black and latine people modding these conversations as part of admin team, especially on the Overlooked admin team." Proceeded to ask for the racial makeup of the admins, would have made the Gestapo proud.
I'm not sure that I can come up with a better example of toxic identity politics. To be clear, be careful here to separate the message from the manner in which it is conveyed. I greatly admire PM Lee and his magic cup, especially in how his speeches addressed the different concerns of different constituencies. To that end, I think that the underlying message here is worth consideration. However, identity is being used as a toxic weapon to divide -- you're different, so you can't possibly understand, so I'm correct and you are not and that is that.
And this is for something as small as moderating a Facebook group! I don't want this type of discourse anywhere near public policy...
There is one more example that I originally included. In retrospect, it is too identifying and was said in confidence (yeah X proposed that in the committee meeting because they didn't like Y and don't think that they deserve prestigious academic status Z), so I have stripped it out.
Other covidiot-tier proposals:
- "COVID19 is stressful, so we international students should get our summer internship fee refunded" - I've paid the fee and hate it too, but don't rider your way into this and trivialize a global pandemic for personal gain. How are the two logically connected? They aren't. At least they had the shame to take down their post.
- "Summer courses should be P/F too" - I wasted a few hours trying to digest their thoughts on why students had to take summer courses if they were not in a good position to do so. What galls me is that they told me that this was due to key required courses on the critical path to graduation that they couldn't possibly take in the subsequent semester. Asked for a course, "there's many examples! btw I have an exam bye". FYI, comments by others did bring some insight -- I didn't know that D's counted for graduation outside of SCS, which changes the interpretation of the original P/F -- but really, was that necessary? That poor guy's exam has been going on for a while...
- All posts by the people involved in the universal P/F proposals seem to be hinged on the argument of, well if you don't agree then you clearly don't care about your fellow students. Nevermind any discussion of the pros (of which I see a few, obtainable through existing advisor support systems) or the cons (of which I see a few as well, which they refuse to address at all beyond a "the harm to those people can't be that bad" argument).
- A few people called them out on it, but they're still shamelessly going at it.
What scares me about democracy is that P1 in the example above is ostensibly the face of "woke activism" on campus, and their supporters in that thread say as much (P2, involved with the student newspaper: "a true ally"). I genuinely believe that some of their causes are worthwhile, namely activism on behalf of the food service workers and of the janitorial staff who have too little voice otherwise, but I want no part of associating with a loose cannon that is likely to cause more harm to a movement than good.
The wider problem in my eyes is that nobody is willing to call out craven self-serving behavior for the sake of ideals alone. Democracy will bring many good ideas. It will also bring many bad ideas, and some of those bad ideas will masquerade as good ideas. If the average population is not willing to speak out when they see something, because it is their friend or whatever have you -- and here I am guilty with respect to the academic thing above too -- then justice erodes into a bed of corruption.
And it is so easy to not speak out too, right? You don't want to get involved. I don't want to get involved. I don't want to shoot down the message with the messenger. Maybe if I keep quiet, there's only going to be a little injustice done to the admin team (being pressured into letting libel slide), who I don't know anyway. It would be really easy to just not respond. So why fight?
Politely rejecting the "are you interested in being a mod" offer was one of the easiest decisions that I've made in my life.
I have a quick litmus test to see where people stand on issues of affirmative action. There are many issues of different flavors, and I find it interesting to see how people respond.
- How do you feel about the SC/OT/OBC reservations in India?
- Generally easier for people to answer, can draw parallels with med school or even general university admissions.
- How do you feel about Malaysia's 90% quotas?
- Most people in the USA who otherwise support affirmative action will knee-jerk with "90%?! that's terrible!" without further information.
- Only one person immediately asked me, "actually, what's the overall demographics of Malaysia", which is what I was hoping people would ask. Kudos to them.
- How do you feel about identity-exclusive opportunities?
- Pick strong opportunities that are not part of their group. For example, scholarships and internship programs for college students. Startup, grant-funding, and networking opportunities for older people.
I'm not going to tell people what to think. But if you find that your personal answer to these questions varies depending on your personal stake in the matter, then maybe take a step back and reflect on whether your motivations are honest.
To me, this is how the world will end. Plenty of people who are otherwise good that are too polite, afraid, or disinterested to speak out. Democracy as it exists in this microcosm will accelerate that process, and finally, one day: "then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me". The thin end of the wedge...
And so, for that reason, I personally think it is important to speak out whenever a problem is found. Even if it doesn't really concern me. Even if you end up knowing uncomfortably many things about uncomfortably many people as people suddenly see you as someone to confide in. Public discourse should remain civil and reasoned. That won't solve the underlying problem, but you'll make the world a little better by doing so.
"悪即斬". A surprisingly powerful quote from a show that has stuck throughout the years. I am a little tired though. It is maybe too early for me to think of retirement, but I really look forward to a quiet existence in solitude. A nice remote hilly forested area, vegetable garden, pet chickens, maybe a couple of fluffy sheep or a goat. Some day, perhaps.. but until then, I will try to do my part.
Not with a bang but with a whimper, huh...