“All grandeur, all power, all subordination rest on the executioner. He is the horror and bond of human association; remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and at that very instant order gives way to chaos, thrones topple and society disappears.”
-Comte Joseph de Maistre
It is an oft-remarked fact that Wesleyan students dislike external control. Indeed, if one looked back through the issues of this noble paper, one would probably find that the majority of angry Wespeaks are written in response to some abuse of authority, either real or imagined, whether it is perpetrated by the Wesleyan administration, the faculty, the Bon Appetit staff, Public Safety, the Middletown Police or even the laws of economics.
A visitor who used these articles as an indicator of the prevailing weltanschauung at Wesleyan would probably come to the conclusion that if this campus believes in anything, it believes in questioning authority. That is, unless you question the implicit moral authority of those who question, in which case you’re a reactionary who has to be silenced. But let’s not mince words.
It is no surprise, therefore, that even when Wesleyan students exercise authority against other Wesleyan students, it is defied. There is no clearer example of this tendency than the article in Friday’s Argus (“Insult to injury: Failure to Comply stats rise,” Sept. 26, 2008, Volume CXLIV, Number 8), which discussed the overwhelming tide of Failure to Comply violations on this campus. Most students have never met a form of authority they couldn’t blow off with relative impunity, and it is understandably galling to them that the Student Judicial Board (SJB) refuses to be so flippantly treated.
It is quite admirable that the SJB is standing firm on this matter, not only because it may finally expunge the prevailing prepubescent attitude that all authority is meaningless, but also because this exercise of unassailable power may actually provoke a discussion about the responsibilities associated with said power. Spiderman’s axiom about the relation between these two concepts desperately needs yet one more historical illustration.
Now, there’s no disputing that the SJB has a tough time convincing students of its capacity to be efficacious. It is widely perceived as the guardian of such unenforceable measures as the chalking ban and the underage drinking ban. Being charged with enforcing such measures is utter poison for any judicial authority that wants to be perceived as such, and the SJB is not perceived as such, largely due to the aforementioned immature attitude among students that all authority is useless. However, far from being the libratory ethos which most of Wesleyan’s armchair anarchists believe it to be, this attitude actually provides cover for a few powers which the SJB does possess and which, if the students actually took the time to pay attention, might alarm them terribly.
The most prominent example of this sort of power is the SJB’s charge to enforce Wesleyan’s Speech Code. The Orwellian name of this document is not accidental—it is nothing less than a document regulating what students can and cannot say without serious consequences, and if you actually take the time to read the document, you find that we can say very little indeed. For instance, the passage detailing what “Discriminatory Harassment” is defines its subject as follows:
“Discriminatory harassment may include any action or statement intended to insult, stigmatize, or degrade an individual or group on the basis of […] race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, disability, national or ethnic origin, veteran status, or any other basis protected by local, state or federal law in any activity administered by the University.”
Now, depending on who sits on the SJB, these words could mean practically anything and we’d have no concrete legal way of constraining them from deciding that one remark is hate speech one year and then is not hate speech the following year. In fact, it’s precisely because of passages like this that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave Wesleyan a speech code rating of Red, the worst rating possible, according to its website www.thefire.org. Mind you, nobody ever bothers to contest this sort of abusive and vague language because nobody believes the SJB has any power, and so they never pay attention to it.
More fundamentally, the attitude toward authority at Wesleyan misunderstands a fundamental element in the dialectic between authority and liberty—implicit in any persuasive criticism of authority is the idea that, were it not for a particular flawed abuse, the criticizer would obey the authority. Otherwise, the authority will believe there’s no pleasing the criticizer, and will be happy to bash his skull against the pavement. This is not a positive outcome for an authority figure, or that authority figure’s subjects. Civic engagement is much more productive; but civic engagement requires the pesky notion that there is an authoritative civic entity with which to engage.
Most Wesleyan students aren’t willing to accept this notion, naturally, which is why the SJB ought to keep enforcing those Failure to Comply violations, ruthlessly if necessary. They should do anything necessary to make this campus realize the necessity of loosening the grip of the administration’s iron fist through legitimate, respectful means. Of course, that may be impossible, as most students seem to prefer idly thumb-wrestling with it.