Eric Baldwin is an electrical engineering senior and Mustang Daily libertarian columnist. This article is purely his opinion about this incident and not related to his libertarian column.
The last few weeks mark the two-year anniversary of a great blot in Cal Poly’s history — the Crops House incident. Although the events may seem simple and straightforward in retrospect, the accounts of what happened at the Crops House — since demolished — were a confusing and contradictory mess.
I still can’t entirely figure out what happened. There was a prior-existing Confederate flag of sorts, a noose somewhere nearby (for what it’s worth, this was Halloween and the students at the Crops House were involved with the corn maze) and there may or may not have been a sign with any number of inane or offensive statements. The New Times first caught on to the story and Cal Poly was quickly caught up in a whirlwind of conflict.
The central flaw in the majority of responses was that they weren’t based on definite information. There were several rumors flying around with sometimes radically differing accounts, and many people simply ran with whichever version suited their preferred form of victim-hood. Many of the responses that ended up proven correct after the facts became known were inappropriate anyway because they had been based on uncertain information.
Especially at first no one really knew what was going on, but that didn’t stop people from leading marches through campus, writing hysterical letters and articles and calling for the expulsion of the students involved. Departments on campus competed to see which could write the loudest and most critical denunciations, and one department took out a two-page spread in the Mustang Daily enjoining readers simply to “hate hate.” The response to the Crops House incident was far more definite and violent than the incident itself; in my mind, the response was the incident — it provides a clearer and more alarming view into the heart of our culture than what did or did not happen at the Crops House two years ago.
The most obvious flaw was the apparent belief that this situation was so heinous that people couldn’t afford the time to make sure they knew exactly what had happened. Do only minor wrongdoings deserve to be examined critically? Do extreme misdeeds deserve a lower standard of proof? Is anything so evil that we can’t afford to waste our time determining whether or not it actually happened — and to what extent? More to the point, is any accusation so powerful that it circumvents the need for verification? For many people, feelings of outrage seemed to draw a far clearer picture than the available facts justified.
For others, it seemed the need to feel virtuous overwhelmed the need to be virtuous. Racism is a very real threat to human rights and it deserves to be fought. While it is good to invest in that fight, it can be tempting to prematurely take up the banner of broadmindedness and equality and thereby injure those very ideals. Actions must follow logically from known facts if they are to be truly virtuous; simply feeling good about what you are doing is not enough — even if your response turns out to be accidentally correct.
Some people, I think, had a much longer view of the situation — for them it was the centuries-long turmoil of racism that was the central fact, and the incident at the Crops House was simply a glimpse into that ongoing event. It was the idea of racism, racism in the abstract, that required a quick and vehement response. They weren’t responding to racism — the event; they were responding to racism — the idea. The opportunity to prosecute the larger war was more important than determining the specific nature of what happened.
Racism is wrong. It is wrong because it refuses to see a person as a person. It provides an easy shortcut for perception about worth, about significance and about purpose. By stating that certain people have less worth than others, it states that they deserve less consideration than others. By stating that they have less significance, it says that we needn’t be as careful with them. By stating that their purpose is to serve us, it says that they are our possession.
The evil of racism is its dehumanization. To divide worth on racial grounds is an instantly-identifiable evil because of our long history of that exact division, but it is in a sense arbitrary; it is the dehumanization itself that is profoundly wrong, however it may be applied.
By rushing to judge the Crops House incident, we dehumanized the people involved. We stated that they didn’t deserve to have the facts presented and analyzed before a decision was made. We were willing to shortchange the principles of justice in order to rush ahead to the part where we felt good about our broadmindedness.
I am not saying that there was an easy resolution to the situation; the history of racism is so long and perverted that perhaps sometimes there aren’t any good choices at all. But we are never excused from trying.
The fight against racism must be fought. But if we betray the principles of justice upon which that war depends, we assault our stated goals. Justice, after all, is not solely for the innocent.