Silencing, Otherizing, and Marginalization

The majority of folks at St. Mary’s are relatively politically liberal, by which I mean that talking about structural injustice and interlocking systems of oppression often secures uptake, rather than blank stares or hostility, and that in the presidential election I’d wager that the majority of campus voted democrat rather than republican. 

As St. Mary’s has been engaging in hard and painful conversations about various forms of oppression for the last year, it has become popular to note that people who hold conservative views feel marginalized, Otherized, or silenced.

There are at least two motivations for doing so, both of which are admirable.  The first is the desire to be sensitive to the fact that maintaining a minority worldview can be painful; it can feel isolating and lonely, and it can impact who wants to talk with you and take your view seriously.  The second is the desire not to perpetuate an unjust Othering of another’s position; that someone is aberrant or deviant from the norm is often a method by which people are harmed or oppressed, and so silencing an unpopular view might sometimes lead to marginalizing or Otherizing the person who holds that view.

The good news is there is no reason to worry about either outcome in our current context.  Here’s why:

1. It’s very unlikely that anyone at St. Mary’s is actually formally silenced; to my knowledge no one is or has been formally sanctioned or penalized for holding a minority view.  In fact, I think that St. Mary’s is committed to doing the opposite (and that we make good on that commitment both inside and outside the classroom) by helping our students to become better equipped to argue for what they believe is true, independent of what others think is true.  Of course, students are not the only people on campus; faculty and staff are also important groups who might feel silenced.  But, for both groups there are ample opportunities to voice dissenting views that, though unpopular, will not meet with formal sanction or penalty.

2.  One can also feel silenced informally, but that is not the same thing as being reduced to the Other, and feeling marginalized is not the same thing as being marginalized.  Because we are social beings it might be really painful to feel isolated or alone in holding particular political beliefs.  But, that pain is not itself enough to constitute having been systematically Otherized in a way that becomes oppressive.

3. Genuine Otherizing requires power; it must be the case that someone’s life chances are diminished, that their opportunities for autonomous action are thwarted or blocked, or that their potential to develop or flourish is diminished by some force that is exerted in response to something about their social or epistemic location (where they find themselves in the world as a social actor or knower).  That isn’t happening here.

All of that might seem pretty esoteric, so let me speak more plainly.  People who support Trump at St. Mary’s might feel like they’re in the minority – at St. Mary’s.  And, they might actually be in the minority – at St. Mary’s.  They might also be in the minority nationally.  But, Trump won the election and Trump supporters have quite a lot of social and political power that others don’t have.  So, it’s just false to say that Trump supporters on our campus are marginalized or Otherized, in so far as both of those terms imply a lack of social power that their position in fact enjoys.

But, even more to the point: Trump supporters at St. Mary’s are not afraid for their lives.  They aren’t afraid for the lives of their loved ones.  They might not feel like lots of people want to be their friend, and they might feel like lots of people disagree with their political views, but their physical safety isn’t being endangered, their ability to live their lives and fully manifest their personal identities are not being undermined, and their ability to love, worship, and self-determine in ways that feel healthy and right are not being threatened. In short, politically conservative voices on campus are not being marginalized or Otherized. 

However, perhaps the concern is not about either of those things, but is instead about voices being silenced.  I have great sympathy for this concern.  Indeed, my entire pedagogical mission is to help my students to strengthen their voices and feel better able to express themselves and argue for the beliefs they believe and think important.  Luckily, again, the good news is this worry evaporates upon examination.  The reason why is that the worry about silencing – what makes silencing bad - is that it can lead to marginalization or Otherizing.  And, as I’ve just argued, that isn’t happening here, because power isn’t operative in a way that both of those outcomes entail.

But, it’s worth noting more generally that some positions ought to be silenced (at least informally), either because they are false or oppressive.  If I believe that the sun revolves around the earth (rather than the other way around) you don’t have to “hear me out” to see if there’s something to my position.  The reason why is that you know that my belief is irredeemably flawed; there just isn’t anything to it that makes it the case that you should consider whether I’m saying something that merits any further investigation.  The same thing is true for some political positions.  Positions that argue for the oppression of others, or that demean, devalue, or disrespect the value of others, are fundamentally flawed, just as is the position that says the sun revolves around the earth.  That doesn’t mean that someone ought to be formally penalized for holding such a view.  But, if others don’t want to be friends with someone because that person believes or supports an obviously, overtly false (and profoundly harmful) position, that person hasn’t been marginalized or Otherized.  Instead, others in their moral community have simply recognized that their social time and energy could be better spent engaging with others who don’t hold such views.