Social Responsibility

By Victoria Venable

Elm Staff Writer

In my time as a writer, political activist, and liberal feminist, I have been faced with an ongoing internal dilemma: confront social injustice and bigotry head on or resist the temptation to reward the behavior with any attention whatsoever.

Does writing an article slamming Ben Carson for xenophobic views reward him with publicity and valuable attention during his presidential campaign? Does correcting my uncle when he unfairly categorizes all LBGTQA members in one stereotype create obstructive confrontation that only reaffirms his belief that my liberal arts college is brainwashing me? Does calling out a classmate for his sexist comment do anything more than give me a reputation of being a confrontational feminist?

So, I’ve gone back and forth on the topic as an active bystander who intervenes when the situation calls for it conflicts relentlessly with my desire to avoid uncomfortable social engagements and confrontation. As the holiday season kicked off this year and conversations about Syrian refugees, funding of Planned Parenthood, and Donald Trump’s border wall,  saturated family dinner tables I made a firm decision. Intolerance creates intolerance and silence only enables and strengthens it.

“Saturday Night Live” recently aired a skit where Adele uses her hit song “Hello” to distract from awkward holiday discussions.
“Saturday Night Live” recently aired a skit where Adele uses her hit song “Hello” to distract from awkward holiday discussions.

I reached this conclusion by checking my privilege and deciding, very consciously, that I had an obligation to use my privilege to prevent social injustices. We talk a lot about checking our privilege these days, but sometimes we forget to talk about the next step. What’s the point in being aware of your privileges if you are not using that awareness to work to tear down some of the hurdles in front of those less privileged?

Take the Syrian refugee crisis for example. It is easy to think that silently tolerating your uncle’s Islamophobic comments will diffuse the tension at the Christmas party and not do any harm to the international crisis. Consider the idea that your silence could be misconstrued as agreement while your protest to bigotry or insensitivity could be interpreted as support for the community issue at hand. Instead of taking a page from the “SNL” playbook and using Adele to divert the conversation away from controversy, you could use this opportunity to help spread accurate information about Islam and the religions practices and teachings instead of allowing the narrative that the west is fighting against Islam to thrive.

I’d like to direct your attention to a great example of this bystander invention idea: Gerard Araud, the ambassador of France to the United States. According to a Washington Post article, Trump used the terrorist attacks in Paris as support for his views on gun control and refugee policy, saying that Paris’ strict gun laws contributed to the high death toll of the attacks. This was Trump’s second attack on French gun policy and Ambassador Araud was not taking it lying down. The French ambassador promptly tweeted to Trump: “This message is repugnant in its lack of human decency. Vulture.” Did this vocalization of disgust in regard to Trump’s comments derail Trump’s campaign? No. Will it change the minds of the millions of Americans that believe gun control and poor refugee policy contributed to this tragedy? Probably not. It did one very effective thing. It recaptured the narrative and made headlines. Instead of Trump’s bigoted views being splattered across the media, the headlines were praising Ambassador Araud.

Finally, my last piece of motivation to speak up against bigotry is about my own personal nationalism. When people think about America or Maryland or Washington College, I do not want hateful words of discrimination or ignorance to be the identifier. I will not allow our reputation to be so foul.

I ask you one favor as we depart for the winter holidays. As you sit around the Christmas tree or you light the menorah this year, be courageous in your conversations with your family. Do not cower away from confrontation if there is an opportunity to spread understanding and compassion.

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