Holding Ourselves Accountable: Pushing through Paralysis by “Getting Proximate”

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By Lalitha Vasudevan, Columbia University

It has been nearly one year since the 2016 presidential election; nearly one year since Hillary Clinton delivered her concession speech; nearly one year of incremental progress made during the previous administration—on efforts related to criminal justice reform, curbing police brutality, and others—being excised legislatively and by the actions of emboldened social actors.

On November 10, 2016, members of the Teachers College community gathered for an open conversation that had been scheduled by the Civic Participation Project several weeks earlier, with the understanding that whatever the outcome of the election, we would want to come together as a community to reflect and move forward. A few students in attendance came ready to fight and resist, as they had already been assuming that posture – a reminder that the election results amplified many of the inequities, injustices, and struggles that communities and individuals were continuing to experience and against which some were barely managing to survive.

Others in the room, however, remained in mourning, temporarily paralyzed by grief.

And then one young man spoke, after a period of silence. He was a new masters student, self-identified as African American, and expressed fear about walking home “now.” He began to share words of appreciation upon seeing so many people sitting around him in a circle, but his voice broke before he could continue. A student seated next to him, another African American male student, quietly embraced his hand, a gesture that was met with a nod of gratitude from a stranger.

We passed the next 90 or so minutes in similar fashion, with tears and embraces, between friends and strangers, as these were the only forms of language available.

Students, faculty, staff, and administrators who were in attendance sought the company of others, to listen and to be heard – even in silences – and to see and be noticed, particularly outside of the labels with which all of us are yoked.

Anthropologists have an important role to play. We have both the onus and gift of story through which to bring into multiple venues accounts from the field that hold, with both firmness and care, the experiences of people who are experiencing daily the effects of travel bans, increased community policing, discrimination in the guise religious freedom, and innumerable forms of sexual harassment and racial profiling. We do not “give voice to the voiceless”; we create conditions to amplify voices, to bring voices into conversation with other voices and texts across space and time, to harness the affordances of different forms of representation to re-present voices as narrative accounts, visual artifacts, media, performances, curated screenings, and other forms that reflect the breadth of multimodal forms of communication and composition made increasingly possible by new digital tools and platforms. To do otherwise is to squander the opportunity to effectively leverage emerging technical capabilities for pursuing public good.

Higher education institutions have a role to play by encouraging vigilance against sources of misinformation that are circulating about issues and communities that are vital to our mission, including academic freedom, enforcing DACA protections, and characterizations of schools and the educators, children, and families they serve. This mission has been realized in our college community and many others around the nation in different ways: organized gatherings to provide comfort and to signal solidarity, the proffer of informational and legal resources for those in need of such services, and new sites of inquiry and action that address the many constituencies that call this campus home.

In this vein, for example, the Media and Social Change Lab (MASCLab) at Teachers College has organized a series of interactive screenings and discussions on topics that, much to my sorrow, continue to appear as news headlines: gun violence, mass shootings, immigration raids and deportation, criminal and juvenile justice, foster care and underfunded child welfare mandates.

These cathected areas of social life garner public wrath and sympathy with equal force. They are not distant topics to be anesthetized before examination; for many in our community, these topics touch a profoundly personal nerve. For those of us who call higher education home, it is incumbent upon us to get closer, or “proximate” as Bryan Stevenson advocates, to the issues of inequality and injustice that we want to better understand and that need our support.

Fake news, with its many loyal foot soldiers, is difficult to fight and eliminate because well-meaning citizens are complacent in its propagation – and academia is not immune from its influences.

“It” comes from all directions, through multiple channels and in forms both beautiful and grotesque, and not always with the full intent of destruction. By-products of myopia and hubris need little incentive to proliferate.

Thus, an educated citizenry (which includes anthropologists and other social scientists with empirical depth) looks left and right, as well as up and down; listens near and far, with headphones on and off; smells the streets as well as sees how things unfold; embraces, with fervor, neighbors and friends, without crushing their ribs or spirit.

Openness, however, is not without conviction. Now is the time to strengthen coalitions because the need for multi-disciplinary efforts of knowledge production and representation is great.

Poetry may hold our salvation. Prose, our good intentions.

Experiences and encounters offer affective glimpses of our shared humanity.

As members of higher education institutions, we can hold ourselves accountable by conveying stories that carry depth and richness of the human experience, beyond what any large data set alone can capture or communicate. We can take steps to affirm our convictions without sacrificing nuance, an unfortunate casualty of the last eleven months in political and academic discourse.

Algorithms are not enough.

Policies, alone, won’t suffocate the distribution and circulation of misinformation.

But perhaps, perhaps, by creating the conditions to “get proximate” intellectually, affectively, socially, and communally, we can thwart the purveyors of fake news from permanently staining our individual and collective souls, lest we become mis-educated into oblivion.

Lalitha Vasudevan is Professor of Technology and Education in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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