“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.“…Elbert Hubbard
On this Fourth of July it seems to be a perfect time to address something that has been cropping up in my life recently. In the past couple of months I have had six people tell me, five with admiration, one with complaint, that I seem to be able to do anything I want to do, both personally and at work. My response to them all was that if I was actually free to do what I want to do both my personal life and my work life would be radically different. In my personal life I would be filthy rich and considerably thinner. In my professional life I would be empowered to make sweeping changes in the way things work not only at my college but in colleges all over America for people who are considered different because of their race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or anything else. No one should have artificial barriers anchored in bias, prejudice and ignorance erected in front of them to impede their opportunities and resources. If I could do anything I wanted to do I would fire employees–faculty and staff that said disrespectful things to students, or each other–especially those who are supposed to know better. I would discipline students who bullied or harassed or denigrated their peers or faculty and staff. I would politely ask anyone to leave who did not comply with the simple directive to be polite and respectful to everyone unless the person proved themselves through some egregious actions or words to be unworthy of respect. So no, I do not get to do anything I want to do.
Having said that I do get to do almost anything I want to do. That is true, but then, if you are willing to take the blowback, heat, abuse, punishment, etc., almost all of us are free to do almost anything we want to do. I do what I think I ought to do, what my conscience and my ethics and my morals and my values tell me to do and I have yet to have attained the level of pay at a job that would convince me to do otherwise. I am not saying I cannot be bought to participate in things I think are unethical or wrong, I am saying nobody has come close to making me an offer that would tempt me to compromise my own values. Oscar Wilde defined virtue as ” Insufficient temptation” and I am prone to go along with him on that. I do not have a specific figure in mind, but it would have to be high six figures, if not seven, so I think my ethics are safe.
I have colleagues who seem quite happy to do anything they are told to do as long as those paychecks keep coming. Their primary goal in life seems to be not to get into any kind of trouble. Therefore, they often tend to do nothing at all ( see the quote above). My favorites are the ones who posture in private about being advocates for something unpopular, but oddly enough when groups are formed to protest something or ask questions about something that concerns them they are not there, unless that is the effort seems to be smiled upon or successful, then they jump on the bandwagon, banging their fists on tables in passionate support .I can only presume their paychecks are a lot bigger than mine.
One of my black female friends, actually a pseudo friend–we all have those, recently said at a dinner party where she was being quizzed about why her department was not doing more in the area of social justice, ” Listen, i am not going to back any causes, I am not going to join any movements, I am all about ME.” At least she is honest.
I, sadly, am not wired that way. If I could put self-interest at the front and simply go along to get along, say what people want me to say, I would be much further along in my career. I am sure I have lost at least 1 chance to be a vice-president because I was too honest at the interview about what I thought the institution needed to do to achieve their diversity goals. No, I did not suggest burning it down or putting people in stocks, I suggested a pan-university diversity audit and the development of a strategic plan for diversity. I think what they wanted me to say was ” You need to have more soul food carry-ins during February.” People and institutions that claim to have a real interest in diversity recoil in horror when I offer suggestions about what needs to be done to achieve their goal of creating equitable and inclusive institutions. They are all show and no go as the phrase goes. They want to appear to be doing something while maintaining the status quo and, most importantly, not pissing anyone off!
It is fascinating that institutions do not worry about upsetting people when they apply rules and requirements about parking, payroll,tuition, academic requirements, human resources, etc., but when they get to diversity issues they suddenly want a pure democracy where the majority all agree. Since a lot of the issues are created by the majority it is not bloody likely they are going to agree there are problems, let alone what to do about them.
So, I go on fighting the fight, making the case, standing up for doing what I think is right, taking my lumps, not being appreciated ( okay that is a lie, I get lots of strokes all the time from folks on campus), suffering in silence ( you know better than that) and being like Diogenes trying to find an honest man, or woman, to join the fight. Fortunately there are a lot of social justice warriors of all stripes on my campus, so my quest is not as difficult as old Diogenes’, but we can always use more recruits.
Do I do what I want to do when it comes to social justice? To quote the Snowbilly from the north, ” You Betcha!” Am I likely to change that? No way. As difficult as it is for some of my colleagues to understand I am more dedicated to doing what is right, or at least what I think is right, even if it is in vain and even if it costs me, than I am to making people comfortable. As one of my heroes John Hope Franklin told me at his 90th birthday party” If you are talking about race and nobody is mad, you are doing it wrong.” I would expand that to ,” If you are talking about oppression and the oppressed and nobody is mad, you are doing it wrong.”
So on this Independence Day I would like to first wish you all a wonderful day to celebrate our hard-won freedoms, and second to encourage you to use your freedom to do whatever you want to do. After all, being happy with yourself is much more important than making other folks happy with you, the only person you can always count on being there in this life, in the final analysis, is you and you should want to enjoy spending time with that person. I am fairly certain there is nothing you can buy that will make you feel better than self-respect.