Archive | April, 2015

Whither the Utopian Consensus?: A love letter to the Swarthmore community

30 Apr

The night before my graduation this past June, I sat with a dozen fellow seniors on Papazian roof. I had a mild case of strep throat, but with the end of my time at Swarthmore looming, I felt the need to stay and conjure up a few more memories, a bit more sentiment. I think we all wanted that, but found there was no way to summarize our thoughts about the last four years satisfactorily. The dawning realization that it was all coming to an end, that there were no more memories to be made, left me, and I imagine everyone else, somewhat empty.

I only felt this way because I had thoroughly enjoyed my time at Swarthmore. It exposed me to a totally new world from the one I knew in suburban Michigan. I had become a considerably different, and I believe better, person because of Swarthmore. I was not alone in that experience. Everyone on the roof that night expressed positive feelings about their college years, even if many were also ready to move onto the next chapter of their lives. Perhaps it’s natural that at the end of a shared experience, individuals think positively about what they’ve been through together. But I suspect what we were feeling that night was genuine. We had had amazing experiences at Swarthmore, and we would miss our friends, our classes, and everything else that those who have gone to Swarthmore intuitively understand.

What stands out from that night, though, was that our feelings about Swarthmore’s future were just as unified as our feelings about our own pasts. We all agreed that Swarthmore, as an institution, was in decline. Those after us would not enjoy Swarthmore the way we did.

This essay was born out of frustration. The last year and a half of my college career had seen seemingly every possible issue erupt in oft vicious, campus-wide debate. Beginning in the so-called “spring of our discontent” in 2013, Swarthmore was getting in the New York Times almost every week, and rarely for favorable reasons. It seemed at times that no one on campus trusted any student they disagreed with, let alone the administration. Cleavages I had never known existed now seemed permanent. The turmoil had torn numerous friendships, including some of mine, irreparably apart. But the question I couldn’t answer, and I hadn’t seen anyone else answer, was why all these issues appeared at once. How could the descent to chaos be so rapid, and the community so broken? In other words, what happened at Swarthmore?

Allow me to return to the night before graduation and the seniors assembled there with me. Why did we all believe in such a pessimistic prognosis for our beloved Swarthmore? One explanation is that Swarthmore doesn’t only lead to personal or intellectual growth, but to a progressive accumulation of knowledge about the college’s nuances that expose its rough edges.

The first step for incoming Swarthmore students is learning the formal processes that allow them to take advantage of the college’s services and amenities. Students must learn, for example, how to register for classes, find campus jobs, and receive medical care. However, it’s the informal processes that come to define Swarthmore for its student body. By informal processes, I mean the information that is mostly inaccessible to outsiders. Learning each dorm’s social character, which professors you should go to for help, the personalities of administrators, and other similar tidbits are some of the pieces of knowledge most important at Swarthmore. Having them, and sharing them with others, is what makes people part of the community.

However, it is this accumulation of social knowledge that can embitter upperclassmen. When students arrive at Swarthmore, they likely have a very rosy picture of the college. The excitement of getting into an elite college, the prospect of the seemingly limitless opportunities provided by the college experience itself, and Swarthmore’s beautiful campus rarely fail to make an impact. However, Swarthmore cannot possibly maintain such a high standard for four years. As students become more involved in clubs, sports, and academic departments, they begin to encounter problems. The more expectations rise, the more difficulties students encounter over time, and the more it seems that the college is deeply rotten. Surely not all Swarthmore students throughout history have come to be so pessimistic about the college on the eve of graduation, but I’d wager, especially in my class, it’s not an uncommon experience.

However, to dismiss the feelings of those of us gathered on Papazian as no more than a psycho-social phenomena contingent on time spent at Swarthmore would be to ignore the rather extraordinary developments of our final year and a half. While my short time at Swarthmore doesn’t provide much of a standard for comparison, I think it’s fair to describe the atmosphere at Swarthmore in my last year and a half as inordinately turbulent. The politics of internal debates were quite often revolutionary. Not only did individuals disagree, but some came to doubt that Swarthmore, as an idea, was worth salvaging. Without either an overthrow of the system, or alternatively, the absolute silencing of the opposition, progress was not possible.

Most individuals at Swarthmore didn’t fall into either camp, but what’s remarkable is that these opinions, usually confined to the radical fringes, came to permeate moderate discourse. It is certainly possible to assign blame to significant portions of campus for this disconcerting occurrence, but many have already done so, and I believe the approach to be somewhat misguided (I will say that in the chaos, genuine efforts to work across divides and implement positive changes have gone unrecognized). Analyses that see individual dispositions as the root causes of conflict fail to accept that a series of events that shook our faith in one another was the result of forces bigger than Swarthmore. Without stripping all agency from Swarthmore’s individuals, it is still possible to understand what has happened at Swarthmore as the perhaps inevitable manifestations of changes that originated deep within Swarthmore’s own history and the history of American higher education.

Swarthmore’s internal cleavages are messy, and to outsiders fairly opaque. There are many sources of tension, which spring from competing narratives of identity and ideology. The divides are by no means clear-cut. As any good Swarthmore student will tell you, everyone holds multiple identities, many of which are situation-dependent, and consequently the lines between groups shift and conflict individual Swatties.

The flashpoints that these groups have clashed around include debates around how the college should manage sexual assault; the existence and form of the fraternities and sorority; the place race, gender, sexuality, and class have on campus; the role of students in social and academic life; and whether the college should divest from fossil fuel companies. So while most college debates are about the format and functioning of the college’s institutions, broader narratives play their role in shaping the limits of on-campus debate.

The student body is itself conflicted, and has a few different currents. The far left tends to advocate for further protections for minorities and a college administration that intervenes decisively on the side of social justice causes. Then there’s “the center” at Swarthmore, which is, as one campus magazine put it, “left of liberal.” This group would be the radical fringe most other places in America, but on campus it’s a bit more status quo. And then there’s the conservative liberals and moderate conservatives who represent the smallest group. They’re generally big fans of the status quo and not of identity politics. While on the whole the percentage of these groups probably held steady throughout my time at Swarthmore, pretty much everyone I’ve seen when I’ve gone back has told me that the current freshmen are more conservative than most. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was more than a coincidence, but it’s too early to tell if the college is seeking more conventional students.

There are some rough generalizations that can be made about the makeup of each camp. For example, the conservative camp is likely to be wealthier and whiter than the far left. There’s probably also a correlation between being farther to the right and being an athlete or a member of Greek life. On the other end of the spectrum, there are more students of color and LGBTQ folks. Swarthmore’s such a small place that many people move across these divides with ease, but it would also be a mistake to ignore that identities often divide us as much as they unite us.

A major tension that’s risen to the fore since the spring of our discontent is between students and administrators. Overall, the student body considers itself more progressive than the administration, but the administration sees itself as the vanguard of Quaker values. Students hold a wide range of opinions of the administration, from wishing they would more proactively crack down on discriminatory behavior to wishing they’d not cede so much ground to the far left. Regardless of where students fall politically, they can probably agree that they have a lot less faith in the administration than they did two years ago. Having not been privy to internal conversations, I don’t want to speculate too much on how the administration feels about students, but in my experience the student body widely views them as increasingly less trusting of students.

The faculty is pretty liberal at Swarthmore, and recently many professors have signed up in support of Mountain Justice’s divestment campaign. However, I’ve gotten the sense that while the faculty often believes in moving the college in a more progressive direction, they often find student activism to be short-sighted.

When I arrived at Swarthmore as a freshman, I was surprised to learn that, for the most part, there were no rules. As long as you didn’t set off the fire alarm or smoke indoors (the two are somewhat related), the school would leave you alone. Buildings were almost never locked and alcohol flowed freely. Social life was governed by norms, not written rules, and students were left to self-regulate.

Even instances of egregious behavior went unpunished. Freshman year, I heard a story relayed by a jovial public safety officer. An intoxicated student had disrobed himself and begun running around campus. When public safety approached, he made a beeline for a flagpole, wrapping his arms and legs around its base. A standoff ensued, because, as the public safety officer deadpanned, “I wasn’t going to touch him.”

Administrators left students to their own devices, relying on student institutions to govern social life. When it occurred, administrative intervention was only designed to reinstate the harmony the student body could not achieve through self-regulation. The reticence to draw students into conflict with administrators had many positive effects. At times, however, this approach proved problematic, as Professor of History Tim Burke noted in an article for Philly Magazine, “From the very smallest scale to the largest scale, the college does have a long history of finding a way through that won’t leave half the people in any room feeling like they lost… It means, for one, we tend to defer difficult decisions.”

The emphasis placed on the power of dialogue and social norms meant that students felt an increased sense of obligation toward themselves and each other. Professors and administrators could largely trust students to do the right thing. Conflict was remedied not through separation, but through engendering mutual understanding and collective deliberation. It was freedom with responsibility, but largely without punishment when that responsibility was not taken seriously.  For my first two years, and many before that, Swarthmore operated on a utopian consensus.

Dialogue is a useful tool for both forcing individuals to reflect on their own beliefs and presenting a gauge of public opinion, but its utility wanes when multiple beliefs cannot be reconciled. As a form of dispute resolution, it can simultaneously smooth disagreements and submerge differences. When these differences remain opposed and unaddressed, they tend to fester. It is at these moments that decisions need to be made, and rulings need to be handed down. Swarthmore has always done an excellent job of stretching the positive qualities of dialogue to their absolute limits, but never quite figured out how to adjudicate when dialogue failed.

The sexual assault crisis was precisely one of those moments where dialogue could not succeed. And even though it was blindingly obvious to any neutral observer, Swarthmore was unable to shift its policies quickly enough to meet student demand. There’s plenty of blame to go around. It could have been handled much better than it was. Dialogue and collections could have been used by administrators to candidly admit missteps instead of covering them up with meaningless platitudes.

(An important aside: sexual assault wasn’t the only problem that was not fully remedied. As much as it might pain us to admit it, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia existed and continue to exist on Swarthmore’s campus. While I, and I think many other straight, white males on campus, probably weren’t aware of the extent of these issues prior to the spring of our discontent [and thus contributed to the problem on some level], it should also be said that Swarthmore has a history of struggling with these issues, and often unsuccessfully. From the Black students’ sit-in in 1969 to the repeated urination on the Intercultural Center door in 2013, identities and how the college has dealt with them have long been at the heart of Swarthmore’s contentious politics.)

Nonetheless, pinning the failings on a few bad apples in the administration distracts from the bureaucratic inertia that administrators were dealing with in the spring of 2013. Swarthmore had never in living memory seriously intervened in the lives of its students, and sexual assault complaints, their urgency amplified by national media attention, demanded decisive action.

What this action might look like posed a whole new set of problems. To what degree should administrators seek to intrude in student social life? What form should intervention take? Legally, what actions were expected? Should the response to sexual assault be purely reactive? If not, what did prevention look like? And most importantly, how could any action taken still fit within the framework of Swarthmore’s proud Quaker tradition?

When explaining the developments of the last two years, Swarthmore’s own history is only part of the story. Swarthmore’s trajectory has also been directed by trends in American higher education. We like to think of Swarthmore as existing in a “bubble,” and while it’s true that the college has retained some unique belief systems and patterns of behavior, we also shouldn’t ignore the weight of outside influences. The college has increasingly had to peg its modus operandi to that of its peer institutions as liberal arts colleges become more selective and compete over the same students. Many of Swarthmore’s administrators also gained experience at other liberal arts schools (under Rebecca Chopp there was an influx of ex-Colgate administrators), leading to a general homogenization and standardization of the liberal arts experience. Therefore, Swarthmore successes and failures need to not only be placed in the context of its internal history, but also in the ebbs and flows of the American liberal arts.

The liberal arts today are facing a dual challenge. As tuition costs climb rapidly upward, students and parents have come to expect more from institutions of higher education. Colleges are also facing increasing scrutiny and regulation from the federal government. Colleges across the country have responded by creating bloated administrations to better manage these new demands.

Even if this is the right move in the long term, it has failed in the short term on the most obvious juncture of the bi-directional pressure: sexual assault. From above, the Department of Education has played an active role in the last two years in investigating colleges on their judicial processes, and even the White House has stepped in with the “It’s On Us” awareness campaign. From below, the “Know Your IX” campaign and other activist movements, have sought to hold colleges responsible for their bungling of sexual assault cases and work toward improved practices.

The fact that sexual assault on college campuses has been termed a “national crisis” demonstrates not only the scale of the problem, but also the entrenchment of the bureaucratic processes that have proved so problematic. Grinnell’s inability to handle sexual assault cases on its campus bears some similarity to Swarthmore’s experience. Like Swarthmore, Grinnell is a small liberal arts school renowned for its academics and left-wing politics, and also like Swarthmore, Grinnell has a history of resolving problems through dialogue. However, much of today’s far left sees dialogue as perfunctory political theater that transforms radical demands into meaningless talk. Accordingly, some students at Swarthmore have suggested that it is this dynamic that is responsible for the resistance to change sexual assault policies.

However, as the Huffington Post article on Grinnell unearths, there’s something else going on. For administrators, the increased scrutiny on the legality of their actions and the potential for lawsuits necessitate treading very carefully. The situation is particularly tricky because enforcing federal laws on sexual assault at colleges creates a legal grey area where colleges have an unclear degree of autonomy on how to handle sexual assault cases. The natural response to this uncertainty, and the high stakes involved, is to hide behind lawyers and release as little information to the public as possible. And while following what is believed to be the letter of the law will likely lead to improved mechanisms for handling sexual assault, the secrecy that this entails cannot satisfy the demands for transparency made by student activists.

Without supervision, colleges across the United States utterly failed to act in an acceptable manner on sexual assault cases. However, increased federal intervention is no panacea. A legal culture increases accountability but can create its own set of perverse incentives. Now, any major changes in handling sexual assault after colleges have fallen in line with Department of Education deadlines will signal past mistakes and open avenues for lawsuits. Increased enforcement may be better overall, but it will also back colleges into corners, and we’d better hope they’re the right corners.

The increasing regulation of administrations’ behavior is also leading to a rift between administrators, faculty, and students. Again, sexual assault is a flashpoint. Many students have accused Swarthmore fraternity members of committing disproportionately high numbers of sexual assaults (according to the Guardian, fraternity members are responsible for 300 percent more rapes than average nationwide), which led to a referendum on the existence of the fraternities in the fall of 2013. However, because of privacy restrictions, there’s no way to corroborate the allegations. Swarthmore administrators likely know whether this is true or not, but releasing personal information on individual cases is illegal.

Information on sexual assault statistics, for example, is a form of privileged knowledge, the dynamic at the heart of a lot of the mistrust between students and administrators. By privileged knowledge, I mean knowledge that multiple groups seek, but only some can access. So when changes to campus rules are made, whether to sexual assault, housing, or alcohol policies, students will always want answers about the rationale, and administrators often have no ability to give students what they want.

Privileged knowledge is partially a result of legal restrictions, but we ignore the cultural aspect at our own peril. Every community, sub-community, and sub-sub-community has beliefs, patterns of behavior, and codes for interaction that will be largely hidden from outsiders. Making generalizations and assumptions about communities of which we are not members is often necessary but rarely prudent.

College communities, particularly liberal arts schools, are frequent victims of this knowledge gap. On one end, there are conservatives that see liberal arts schools as signaling the downfall of American moral civilization. But then there are also people like Jonathan Chait, who argued that “PC culture,” or the aggressive hounding of all those that don’t fit into a narrow conception of left-wing identity politics, is so pervasive on college campuses that it squeezes out all other brands of liberalism. Now, Swarthmore may not be the perfect microcosm of all liberal arts colleges, but I can safely say from my experience that Chait isn’t wrong that this is something that exists. But he’s also entirely wrong to think that this is the hegemonic brand of left-wing thought and action. Simply, Swarthmore, like every college, has a wide spectrum of political thought among students, and ideologies are constantly struggling with each other and being reformed.

If we go further down the privileged knowledge rabbit hole, we get back to Swarthmore and the tension between students and administrators. The crux of the issue is this: both sub-communities have modes of thinking, doing, and interacting that are imperceptible to the other side. And because students and administrators have to work together, there is always the desire to more fully understand the Other than is legally or culturally possible.

In the fall of 2013, I went to a town hall-style meeting with Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Development Lili Rodriguez, Assistant Director of Student Activities, Leadership, and Greek Life Mike Elias, and Director of Public Safety Mike Hill on changes to alcohol and party policies. It didn’t go well. Most of the students there were worried that any crackdown on underage drinking would encourage binge drinking and broadly lead to an adversarial relationship between students, administrators, and Public Safety (for those who don’t know or don’t remember, when I started college, Public Safety was mostly there to protect Swarthmore students from the police).

Rodriguez, Elias, and Hill were, to varying degrees, dismissive of Swarthmore’s previous party policy as irresponsible and legally questionable. However, when pressed on the benefits to student safety that these changes would bring, the answers were extremely underwhelming. Like most of the other students there, I was pretty pissed off. Near the end, I asked incredulously what had changed, and why the school couldn’t break the law.

It took me a little while to realize the impossible position Rodriguez, Elias, and Hill were in, which was then compounded by my question. There is no way any administrator could publicly comment on their own past legal conduct. Transparency may be an ideal to aspire to, but in some situations there are outcomes that multiple parties support that can only be achieved through the mutual withholding of information. However, these outcomes, like Swarthmore’s previous alcohol policy, are highly unstable. Think about it from a game-theory perspective: when there is not enough information to evaluate whether the other side is holding up their side of the bargain, mistrust will likely result. In turn, this makes protests more likely, and the status quo is likely to fall apart.

This is precisely what has happened at Swarthmore.

Sexual assault was a collective failure, both moral and institutional, but the ramifications of such a deep rupture go far beyond reformatting the College Judiciary Committee; it was the step off the trail that triggered the avalanche. Like an avalanche that sweeps away everything in its path with tremendous force, the institutional inertia that the sexual assault crisis set in motion has left few of the college’s social policies untouched. Many were only tangentially related to sexual assault, but the imperative to avoid another monumental scandal means necessitates a total overhaul.

Swarthmore’s avalanche, however, is happening at a snail’s pace. It is a slow revolution. Institutions and policies are experiencing fundamental change, but at such a speed that there’s apparent continuity between the events of two years ago and today.

The record of reform is mixed. On one hand, there is no doubt the college is doing a better job of handling sexual assault cases than it was two years ago. Following the initial period of denial, Swarthmore has had to get serious about radically altering its processes for dealing with campus conflicts.

On the other, some changes seem destined to harm student life. There’s a move toward freshman-only housing (just a pilot program for now), which would partially break the bond between older and younger students that I benefitted from so much.

However, it is Swarthmore’s alcohol and party policies that represent the most harmful changes. Banning funnels, for example, was an absurd step, and obviously unnecessary for anyone who’s ever been to a Swarthmore party (or talked to someone who has, for that matter). Nonetheless, Swarthmore life will continue as usual whether or not funnels and drinking games are permitted. The decision to cease Student Activities Committee funding for parties, however, was more insidious. Now, we all know that students mostly used “DJ money” to buy alcohol, but its termination had a predictable side effect: the only students able to buy enough alcohol for dozens of people, and thus host parties, were the fraternities. It is a cruel irony that the college, worried about increased liability brought on by sexual assault, has made the fraternities more prominent in campus social life than they ever were. One of the primary grievances of campus activists was that fraternity members disproportionately sexually assaulted others and that the fraternity houses incubated an atmosphere conducive to sexual assault.

Lamentably, few of us saw all this coming. Prior to the spring of our discontent, I, and I think many others, tended to think of most aspects of the college as segmented: housing policy was separate from party policy, which was separate from student group policy, and so forth. However, when there’s a crisis as big as sexual assault, which brings national attention, administrators can no longer afford to allow the fragmentation to continue. These sorts of crises demand wholesale coordination and change.

There are a few lessons from the events of the last two years. First, the slow revolution says a lot about the institutional ripple effects of activism and the resulting change. In chaotic environments, change can be like whack-a-mole: squashing one problem can cause others to pop up. Institutions, especially those that serve multiple constituencies, often translate a set of demands into policies that satisfy the imperative for change without solving the original impetus for seeking change. Second, even those with the best of intentions often get it wrong. Navigating the campus political landscape is really, really complicated, and rarely are proposed policies broadly uncontroversial. Finally, when demanding change, there is a need to see not simply through the lenses of social justice or liability-limitation, but in paradigms that acknowledge the myriad of beliefs, pressures, and influences that everyone in the community faces. This empathy has been too frequently absent from recent campus conversations. Restoring it would go a long way to healing the deep fissures that have opened up.

In the environment that the events of the last two years have created, Quaker values (or what are called “Quaker values” on campus) are being squeezed from both sides. For many students, they’ve come to represent a PR exercise carried out to placate student demands in the face of inevitable changes. For administrators, the slow, deliberate process of dialogue and consensus is unlikely to produce the changes they feel are needed. The utopian consensus, and the Quaker values on which it was built, requires trust, and that trust has disappeared. Even after all the students that remember the spring of our discontent are gone (it’s only a year away), the belief that the student body and the administration are adversaries will be passed down. The next generation of students will still be picking up the pieces of the last generation’s battles. But without a knowledge of the way things were, and therefore how they could potentially be again, I fear the trust may never return.

This is not to say that the conflictual relationship between students and the administration is only the result of a big series of misunderstandings. There are real issues that people stand on different sides of. For example, in February 2014, the college brought Robert George and Cornel West to campus to attempt to heal divides. It was a total failure, even if one disregards George’s repugnant views. Both speakers spoke about intellectual disagreement, but in doing so entirely missed the point. Though there is always a place for the encouragement of civil dialogue, Swarthmore was not suffering primarily from an inability to debate in the classroom, but difficulty in accommodating competing demands on the college’s social policies. The prioritization of academic issues over social cleavages represented a major divide between the majority of students and the rest of campus.

The major knock-on effect of this fundamental disconnect is a move toward major decisions that are made without the official input of the student body. In return, students hold an overwhelmingly negative view of the administration, and many tend to see every change as the result of malicious intent. This dynamic generates not only ill-will but bad policies. The calendar change, which has since been rolled back, was one such debacle. The timing was dubious and the logic never fully fleshed out. In the end, seniors get to keep their senior week, but it was another moment that generated even more distrust between students, administrators, and this time, the faculty.

Where is Swarthmore headed? Looking at all the evidence available to me, I can’t help but conclude that the college is moving toward a less nurturing, more conventional future. With the large exception of the college’s performance handling sexual assault cases, the student experience is not as good now as it was when I was a freshman. There are few signs that suggest that the decline will reverse (the new president, Valerie Smith, is a notable exception). The administration is weighed down by the new politics of liability, and as the administration’s numbers balloon, the faculty is further removed from students’ non-academic lives. Student protest was unintentionally one of the reasons for the events that led to the decline in the first place. It’s hard to imagine another large-scale protest movement on any controversial issue that doesn’t lead to the administration retreating into its shell and repeating the current cycle.

Even if I am mildly pessimistic, I think we should also be honest with ourselves: Swarthmore’s student experience is, and will remain, better than that of most other schools. This isn’t “Swarthmore exceptionalism.” It’s the recognition that the combination of liberal values, an enormous endowment, elite academics, and a low professor-to-student ratio lead to a comparatively good environment.

The task ahead of the Swarthmore community, therefore, is to influence the trajectory of the college in this new context. For administrators, this means finding room to maneuver within the bounds of liability and mentally disentangling student welfare from what is legally prudent. Making more of an attempt to consult with students (not necessarily in terms of how decisions are made, but so that administrators have a better sense of student opinion) will aid this process. For students, this means thinking strategically about what gains are possible and approaching the administration with a degree of trust and humility. I do not mean to say that activism should never be confrontational (would there have been change on sexual assault otherwise?) or that students must implicitly trust administrators, but that students should have an idea of what tactics they choose that extends beyond moral imperatives. Students can create positive changes through organized protest and dialogue in the future, but should weigh the costs and benefits of attracting national media attention, especially a year or two later, when that media attention is gone but the college is still reeling.

Together, students and administrators should seek to bring back a slower, deliberative decision-making process. Striving for (even if not reaching) consensus can be painful and disjointed, but it is better at accommodating myriad views. Very rarely do policies crafted by a small group of people without broad consultation, whether they be administrators or student activists, produce the best outcome for the community. And even when the policy works as intended, the feelings of exclusion produced may amplify future differences. As I wrote earlier, there are certainly circumstances that require decisive action. Just like full direct democracy is an untenable national political system, attempting to find consensus on room assignments instead of  holding the housing lottery would be a colossal waste of time. Nonetheless, the college has moved too far away from a consensus-oriented approach. Including all sectors of campus in major decisions is unwieldy and frequently frustrating, but the alternatives are even less appealing.

I have never been prouder to be a member of a community than I have been at Swarthmore. It pains me to see how this community has shattered in the past two years. I hope that I am wrong about Swarthmore’s downward descent, and the antagonism of the last two years are the growing pains caused by breaking down the old and building up the new. But if I am right, and Swarthmore is in decline, then I at least hope that the community can find the strength to put itself back together again.


Cultural Knowledge and a Little Luck: Surviving Boko Haram

9 Apr

A couple of weeks back, Al Jazeera published the testimony of Apagu, a Christian, 16-year-old Nigerian girl who was kidnapped by Boko Haram and subsequently escaped to Cameroon. I really encourage everyone to read it, if only to understand what she, and many other women, have gone through. Beyond the emotional weight of the interview, Apagu’s story provides a fascinating insight into the physical, cultural, and social terrain that people in warzones have to navigate to survive.

The first obstacle Apagu had to overcome was the physical environment around her. Both before and after her spell in captivity, she had to walk long distances, find food and water, and remain hidden from Boko Haram fighters. The physical inability to flee, either because of environmental factors or physical weaknesses, creates a whole new set of possible choices. For Apagu, had she been unable to escape her captors, her choice would have been between accepting marriage to a Boko Haram fighter and death.

The physical environment of a warzone dictates the possibilities available to civilians, but cultural and social relations are largely what determine who survives. Reading Apagu’s testimony for the first time, I was struck by the number of times she almost died. These near-death experiences weren’t from falling into a swollen river or being bitten by a snake. Rather it was that saying the wrong thing to the wrong person or wearing the wrong set of clothing in the wrong place would have meant almost certain death. Apagu had to perform some delicate cultural dances, and individuals without a deep knowledge of the social cartography would have had little chance.

Her survival, more than anything else, was dependent on the help of the people around her. Without the aid of friends and strangers, she never would have escaped the Boko Haram compund in the first place. Previous literature has emphasized that environments of mass violence feature three types of people: perpetrators, bystanders, and victims. Stopping mass violence can be achieved through activating bystanders to protect victims from perpetrators.

Apagu’s story shows that there’s more to the narrative; individuals float between the three categories and the victims have significant agency. On the one end, some of Boko Haram’s member were more cruel than others, and in some moments, they were as much bystanders as perpetrators. On the other, Apagu could not have survived without the help of others, who by becoming active bystanders risked victimhood. But there were also some, like those in the village Palam (who helped them find the way to Cameroon), who would have killed Apagu if they thought she was a Boko Haram member. These constantly-shifting roles doesn’t fit traditional conceptions of unarmed actors in warzones, but it is line with work like Kalyvas‘ and Kaplan‘s that sees civilians as crucial in both the persecution of others and their own protection. Protection and persecution operate through small-scale social networks, in which the two behaviors are mutual. Most people can choose to inform on each other, or to steer each other away from harm. No group has absolute power, and no group is powerless. Even when individuals choose to become perpetrators, civilians, like Apagu, still sometimes find the strength to run, hide, and survive.

Civilians who do live through mass violence, as I’ve written before, tend to do so without the help of anyone beyond their local communities. International politics might influence the environment, and aid might cushion the fall, but when it comes down to the experience of proximate physical violence, civilians are relying on their friends, family, and neighbors. And even when these social networks are strong, and civilians successfully navigate the physical and social landscapes, survival is rarely possible without luck. Communities play a role in shaping mass violence, but they often can do little more than respond and adapt. Subsequently, not everyone, even those who are well prepared, will survive. Apagu came closest to death when she was spotted after her escape by a Boko Haram fighter, but mercifully he didn’t have a gun, and she was able to escape. That civilians need such luck, and that so many do not have it, is tragic.