Response to Justin Onwenu: Truly partisan issues should not be framed as “questions of humanity”
In his opinion earlier this week, former Student Association President Justin Onwenu argued that Rice had a duty to "stand tall" and take positions on political issues such as immigration, gun control, and global warming, claiming that these issues defy partisan divides as they are "questions of humanity, not partisan politics."
Scolding the naïveté of those who endorse “intentional silence,” and what he considers to be its unacceptable consequences, Onwenu proceeds to launch into an impassioned defense of those stances that he considers a matter of consensus, if not obligation, among Rice students (and seemingly all educated, decent people as well). I have always considered Onwenu to be a thoughtful and open-minded advocate for civil discourse on this campus. Yet, knowing this about Onwenu makes his argument all the more distressing.
While Onwenu, and others like him, may be driven by well-intentioned concern for the welfare of individuals both within and outside the Rice community, I find the core of his argument to be untenable and intellectually disingenuous at best and actively destructive at worst. For someone who demonstrates such enormous concern with his opponents’ supposedly naïve failure to consider the consequences of their actions, Onwenu appears to be just as guilty of the same charge.
The suppression of free thought begins when some explicitly political opinions are seen as not just beyond reproach and a matter of consensus, but as concerning “humanity” and fundamental decency as well. Much as Onwenu and his supporters yearn for the opportunity to wave a magic wand and wish away the partisan divide that is entrenched by “NRA propaganda,” the bad-faith actions of “fringe political leaders,” and the failures of “corporations, institutions and policymakers,” no thoughtful, solution-minded discussion can take place when the starting line is a demeaning caricature of one’s opponents who are accused of neglecting their “duty to uplift humanity by supporting responsible solutions.”
With such a mix of morally high-minded pomposity and unequivocal condemnation of one’s opponents, how can there possibly be room for nuance? Moreover, if these questions are framed as matters of humanity and above normal partisan scrutiny, how can there possibly be any room for members of the Rice community who feel differently to be able to express themselves openly and honestly without fear of being maligned as prejudiced, anti-science Neanderthals? No good can possibly come from further entrenching a political orthodoxy on campus when there is an intellectually diverse community of students and faculty who hold diverging views and already consider themselves to be a marginalized minority that is under constant pressure to conform and be silent.
Onwenu is content to draw an arbitrary line and argue that all students who fall on the opposite side of it are doing a disservice to the values this institution instilled in us since stepping on campus. He singles out three specific issues—gun violence, climate change and DACA—that he believes are so compelling that they must be above dissent and to which students must commit themselves by virtue of their membership in this community. On what authority does he do this? On what grounds does the line between what is and isn’t a “question of humanity” begin and end here, and how does he justify the consequences of drawing such a line –– not in the least including the obvious alienation of many current and prospective members of the Rice community?
Should Onwenu’s views be taken to mean that a student who raises legitimate concerns about the constitutionality of certain gun regulations or writes a paper on the socially disruptive impact of the migrant crisis in Europe be shunned? And, if they find themselves under scrutiny for holding politically dissenting views, to whom are these students supposed to go for institutional support? The Office of Multicultural Affairs, where a “Unite and Fight!” sticker with President Trump’s face on it is glued to the front door? Or perhaps the rest of the administration, which has called on students to “vote DACA values” in November and dragged its feet for years on explicitly protecting students’ freedom of speech?
Furthermore, who is to say that these issues of humanity that are “above partisan politics” end here? Why not add in affirmative action, social security, healthcare or any of the other complicated and divisive issues that Americans have been squabbling about for decades? After all, these certainly fall under the umbrella of so-called “questions of humanity.” Why not frame these matters, too, in this alternative reality where one side’s solutions are obvious and non-controversial, failure to endorse those solutions is unethical, and dissent on either of the above points is verboten?
At this rate, perhaps Justin and others would happily endorse Rice’s institutional beatification of every left-wing movement under the sun, as they have already done with the March for Our Lives and the Pro-DACA rallies as they redefine an ethical Rice student as one who dutifully marches with colorful banners at the SA’s and administration’s beck and call. Should we then also assume that the leaders of these “non-partisan” movements who are fighting for “humanity” are flawless and immune to their own propaganda and “fringe political leaders?” Are we now to merely stand back and accept the bigoted actions of Women’s March (another favorite cause célèbre of this institution) co-chairs Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour when the former praises the repulsive, homophobic, anti-Semitic bigotry of Louis Farrakhan, and the latter says she wants to take Somali-Dutch feminist (and female genital mutilation survivor) Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “vagina away” for her critique of Islam? So much for “uplift[ing] all members of our community, no matter their background,” with heroes like that.
I would encourage Onwenu, the Student Association’s leadership, Rice’s administration and all members of this community to evaluate how the university’s public actions influence its relationship with all those who are a part of our community or one day wish to join us within these hedges. Directing university support and resources toward one end of the political spectrum is naturally alienating to many, even when there are compelling reasons to do so. However, preaching useless platitudes and false generalizations from atop the mountain of moral superiority achieves nothing. If anything, it makes this institution less intellectually vibrant and less welcoming, and if there is a place where solutions to vexing policy problems are to be formulated, it is within intellectually diverse communities like what Rice has been for most of my time here. But, if we so choose to politicize our soon-to-be alma mater more explicitly, I ask that those who do so at least be honest to themselves, and to the rest of us, about their true motivations and final ends and not try to obscure it with shaky appeals to universal values. If that is the chosen route, however, I might recommend that the administration at least offer every Rice student complimentary membership in the Texas Democratic Party as part of their tuition package—perhaps they can even have it delivered via helicopter-drop during O-Week to add some color to what has become a mind-numbing exercise in “non-partisan” indoctrination. After all, transparency is not only “non-partisan,” it’s something that both Republicans and Democrats can actually agree on.
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