Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Empty Declarations


Context: The Crimson | UC Passes Act of Solidarity in Light of UNC Shooting. But first, Scott Alexander writing in Slate Star Codex | I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup (himself quoting Chesterton):

There are a lot of people who say "I forgive you" when they mean "No harm done", and a lot of people who say "That was unforgiveable" when they mean "That was genuinely really bad". Whether or not forgiveness is right is a complicated topic I do not want to get in here. But since forgiveness is generally considered a virtue, and one that many want credit for having, I think it's fair to say you only earn the right to call yourself 'forgiving' if you forgive things that genuinely hurt you.

To borrow Chesterton's example, if you think divorce is a-ok, then you don't get to "forgive" people their divorces, you merely ignore them. Someone who thinks divorce is abhorrent can "forgive" divorce. You can forgive theft, or murder, or tax evasion, or something you find abhorrent.

I mean, from a utilitarian point of view, you are still doing the correct action of not giving people grief because they're a divorcee. You can have all the Utility Points you want. All I'm saying is that if you "forgive" something you don't care about, you don't earn any Virtue Points.


Sunday, The Crimson reports (edit: ...and the UC finally gets around to publishing), the Harvard College Undergraduate Council passed a resolution stating "the Council publicly expresses solidarity with the Islamic Community for this senseless tragedy, recognizing that their loss is one that the entire Harvard Community mourns."

Solidarity is a word that gets used a lot, often without much thought. It's good to forgive, so we tell people we forgive them; it's good to tolerate, so we speak well of tolerance (Scott's second example); it's good to stand in solidarity, so we end up standing in solidarity a lot.

I claim that it's not that easy.

I mean, I'm in a terrible position to speak for anyone affected by this issue -- the most I've felt personally affected by a shooting terror was the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, which was pretty terrifying but wasn't really directed at me. (For reasons which may be obvious, the fact that I actually lived in Chapel Hill for the first year of my life doesn't have a lot of emotional valence for me.) Maybe go read Idrees Kahloon's editorial in The Crimson, When Muslim's Die, for a better perspective?

But from where I'm standing, it seem like there's a (huge!) difference between (1) listening to a ten-minute presentation by the Harvard Islamic Society and voting to pass a carefully-worded resolution, plus or minus a few amendments and (2) actually making an effort to understand someone else's pain.

Here, try an exercise:

  • Read Idrees's editorial.
  • Look at the clock.
  • For the next five minutes, close your eyes and try to imagine what it must be like to be Idrees Kahloon.
  • No, really, do it. I'll wait.

There. I will bet real money 10:1 against any uninformed counterparty that you just made more of an effort to understand "the loss of the Islamic Community" than did anyone on the UC during Sunday's meeting. Of course, they're doing a better job "publicly express[ing] solidarity", but that's because they've got a big megaphone and the ear of The Harvard Crimson, and because they make it a point of emphasis to be very public about expressing solidarity at all the proper times.

It may be obvious to regular readers that I am not a fan the the UC in the post-Gus+Sietse era.


And don't get me started on "...recognizing that their loss is one that the entire Harvard Community mourns..." -- oops, I just did.

This is not a loss that the entire Harvard Community mourns. That's Idrees's entire point. And saying that it is, when it so clearly isn't, is at best patronizing, and at worst, the exemplifaction of everything that's wrong with the white response "when Muslims die". Does the UC believe that the Muslim communities of Cambridge and Chapel Hill (inter alia) feel so alone in suffering, so unsympathized-with, that the thing they need this week is empty declarations of support and transparent white lies that are truly hurtful if you bother to think about them?

"Look around you at the Harvard community mourning;" says the UC, "you couldn't tell it by looking at them, but really, they are. This, right now, is them mourning with you. Now don't you feel better? We're all standing here in solidarity with you."