Conservatives co-opt language of the oppressed, calls for inclusivity misguided

The recurrent protests and gatherings advocating liberal politics on campus lend credence to the hypothesis that there is a dominant political ideology at St. Olaf. Specifically, the student body is more inclined to agree with the political dictums of modern U.S. liberalism, the central tenets of which are civil liberty and social justice. Campus liberals seek to affirm marginalized identities and advocate for an inclusive and harmonious community. However, there is an apparent contradiction of the liberal ethos in the politically turbulent post-Trump campus atmosphere that conservatives decry as intolerant. A Fox News feature on the plight of conservative students at St. Olaf, and a Manitou Messenger article entitled “Under the Radar,” reveal that conservatives feel unsafe on campus because of bullying by liberals.

Conservatives at St. Olaf have faced threats and some have decided to transfer to a less “hostile environment.” The retort of conservatives and their challenge to liberal values is the following: “Why are ‘inclusive’ liberals so unaccepting of opposing political views?” This is a legitimate challenge. The manner in which the conservative retort is being politicized and structured, however, is problematic. The problem is that the challenge of conservatives is framed through an implicit moral appeal, that of “personal safety” for students who identify as conservatives – fear based on identity implies marginalization of identity.

There are two contentions I have with this politicized retort. First is the issue of language. A growing trend among conservative factions has been the appropriation of language from liberation and anti-oppression politics. An example of this is the adoption of #BlackLivesMatter and its misguided rearticulation as #BlueLivesMatter. Conservatives’ use of “safety” language follows this tradition. The politics of safety based on identity come from feminist and queer discourses advocating the need for “safe spaces” for marginalized individuals who feel threatened due to their identity. Women, as Angela Davis reminded us, need safety from domestic violence, which was not considered a crime until recently. Conservatives inadvertently expose their logical inconsistency in appropriating this language. They want to “feel safe” while also wanting marginalized individuals, who have expressed similar needs for safety, to “be tough.” Such a co-option of language invalidates the agency of marginalized peoples in accessing this political language.

Conservatives also claim difficulty in expressing their political views because of fear. This brings me to the second contention, highlighted by the paradoxical title of the article, “Under the Radar.” In the very act of going “under the radar,” conservatives are getting access to mainstream political platforms where their rhetoric is receiving national attention. Conservatives claim to be hiding their “conservatism” due to fear of harassment from liberals but are nevertheless getting public recognition for being conservatives.

This notion of fear based on identity that conservatives have used is therefore misplaced. Self-disclosure ought to make this point clearer. As a person with brown skin – I’m sure this resonates with people with black and brown skin on campus – the possibility of going “under the radar” is elusive. My fear of being brown and different in a foreign land, and this is an existential fear, exists precisely because “under the radar” is not an option. Conservatives are assuming space – becoming visible – in the public sphere by postulating their apparent invisibility in the public sphere. This is of course not to say that conservatives on campus are not facing threats but instead that they are not marginalized, because marginalization does not presuppose choice of visibility. People are marginalized either because of how they are recognized – the position of non-white bodies on campus, or they are marginalized to the point of invisibility – the immigrant workers who work in the cafeteria dish room. In both cases, choice is absent.

Now we return to the real challenge to liberals on campus. I would argue that the case made by conservatives, or at least its implication, must not be ridiculed but rather taken very seriously by liberals. There appears to be a fatal confusion among liberals; they advocate for the presence of all peoples on campus, trying to construct an “inclusive” community, while being unable to cope with the fact that some groups are fundamentally antagonistic. The liberal confusion is best manifest in how the college administration legally opposed the travel ban but still insists that within our “inclusive” community and public sphere, all political views should be entertained. The presence of a Muslim student from one of the six countries on President Donald Trump’s travel ban list is incompatible with the presence of a person who supports the travel ban. This is not a mere disagreement. It is an existential conflict about what and who constitutes St. Olaf.

The “inclusive” politics of liberals, affirming “diversity” – usually signifying non-white/ non-American/non-Christian individuals etc. – does not work unless it is accompanied by a clause that excludes any ideology or group that is antagonistic to the “diversity” liberals are trying to preserve. At a deeper level, the students coded as “diverse,” for example members of Center for Multicultural and International Engagement (CMIE), are being marginalized in their very inclusion; “diverse students” are included because of their exclusionary status. That is to say, they are counted as a part of the community but counted precisely as “other,” as the ones embodying “diversity.” This language of “inclusion” and “diversity” needs to be transformed because it is inconsistent and is used only to mitigate and suppress tensions, not resolve them. The college administration cannot cower behind platitudinous messages of tolerance which obscure the real antagonisms that exist between students on campus – between the “diverse” and those opposed to the “diverse” – and liberal students cannot uncritically promote the rhetoric of “inclusion,” which does not necessarily benefit the ones who “get included” and is contradictory to their attitudes towards conservatives.