On September 13th, 2016, in response to a question I do not remember, Ta-Nehisi Coates used the phrase “I’m still learning”. On February 15th, 2016, he tweeted about how the word “essay” derives from the French “essayer”, which means “to try”.
Writing is hard. Writing for an audience is even harder. Writing a piece that will be read and scrutinized by some Amherst College students is daunting. It’s daunting because even though Amherst is supposed to be “the place where only the ‘h’ is silent”, we are coy about our criticisms of each other. Noting the faults of the Amherst institution? Fine. We are confident and direct. Noting the faults of our peers? We often rant behind closed doors; we are indirect.
This is especially daunting for the writer because it is often writing that starts conversation. Yet, the writer seldom hears criticism aside from a few negative comments, whose credibility is oftentimes immediately compromised by its own anonymity. The lack of criticism will cause an immature writer to emerge with a heightened sense of self (“no negativity means the piece must have been perfect”) and the mature writer will emerge with crippling anxiety (“it’s too quiet, something is up…”).
To be clear, I’m using the term “writer” very loosely here. I am not merely referring to myself and others who write for our many, many campus publications. How pretentious that would be. I am really referring to people who espouse beliefs, and author thoughts, on this campus – whether it be in Val, class, or on a Facebook status. I am talking about everyone. I think it’s fair to say that there are a lot of Amherst students with heightened senses of self and ones with crippling anxiety and even ones with both.
There are many explanations for this coyness and they range from compassion and politeness to a simple inability to debate. The explanation I find most interesting though is related to Coates’ “I’m still learning” and the French “essayer” which means “to try”. The explanation being a perceived lack of humility in others: we do not acknowledge that others believe themselves to still be learning and to be trying. We often take others to be married to their viewpoints. “So and so” is set on their stance and is thus not worth talking to. In reality, most, including “so and so”, would acknowledge that their ideas are shaping and developing. Otherwise, most wouldn’t be at Amherst, a place created to do such a thing.
This perceived lack of humility in others is definitely related to our age and our education level. For most of us, who are quite young in the grand scheme of things, this is the most independence we’ve ever known. In this independence, we strive for self-identification. The most coveted self-identifier being maturity. What is also true of all of us is that we are high-achieving – that’s what got us into this college. So, because mature people often have concrete viewpoints affirmed by their own personal histories, and because we strive to be mature and automatically believe that we are excelling at it (without recognizing that we don’t excel at everything), we assume that the viewpoints of ourselves and others are concrete. The thing is, most of us aren’t mature adults. We’re on our way, definitely, but we’re not quite there yet (I’m actually not sure anyone ever quite gets there).
Treating people, who are not yet mature and experienced adults, like mature and experienced adults is often to treat people like babies. When we keep our criticisms to ourselves, for whatever reason, that’s letting each other off the hook, and easily. It’s babying. Those who need to hear criticism most – which is honestly all of us – aren’t hearing it directly.
While it is true that many mask racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and more as criticism (and this is something we shouldn’t do), there is still legitimate criticism that is not being given and heard. We give and hear this legitimate criticism best one-on-one. Whenever there’s more than two people present, there’s an audience. Whenever there’s an audience, constructive criticism often turns into a performance. And whenever there’s performance, people are less open-minded and thoughtful and more defensive, reactive, and self-conscious. This happens very vividly on Facebook posts (either that or praise so excessive and uniform that it raises eyebrows). Public conversation has its benefits but also its downfalls.
We need to hold each other accountable and expect to be held accountable. We do that by sharing our criticisms of not only the institution but also of each other, directly to each other. The next time anyone says something flawed in class, and we don’t speak up, we need to pull that person to the side after class to a one-on-one conversation. The next time anyone says something illogical during a Val sit, we need to pull that person aside and point it out. And so on. Instead of fuming by ourselves, or with our close friends, we need to talk directly to each other – one-on-one. Of course, there are instances where it may not be safe to do so, depending on power dynamics, etc. and we need to be honest with ourselves in filtering out those instances.
While it is true that some are not receptive, we cannot know until we try. It is only after we’ve tried with that specific person, not with their friend or their doppelganger, that we should be coy. Not a second before it. This is a frightening proposal, especially coming from a piece that appears to be its exact opposite. But when we acknowledge the humility and humanity in others, it is much easier to initiate that one-on-one conversation. Until then, we are missing out on the nuances of issues, and with it a deeper understanding, that are often revealed by criticism.
We are still learning. We are trying.