Josie Tolin: Power in a platform

Monday, December 4, 2017 - 3:31pm

I’ve never been good at lasts. They’re hard to process in the moment, pulling me to either the most emotional end of the reaction spectrum or leaving me to stew in my own fabricated indifference. Balance clearly isn’t a strong suit of mine, either.

It makes sense then, that as I sat down to write this article — my last for the semester — I had absolutely no idea where to begin. There’s so much to say about the current campus climate — white supremacist Richard Spencer’s possible future appearance at the University of Michigan, dialogues surrounding divestment, the Middle Eastern and North African community’s campaign to create a ME/NA demographic category on campus forms. These are things I’ve been thinking long and hard about, things that matter with a magnitude of pressing urgency. Things that affect the day-to-day mental states of others to an extent I can’t possibly fathom as an upper-middle-class white woman.

As I scroll through The Daily’s fiery op-eds and the eloquently worded columns of my fellow opinionators, I’m hit with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. I’m grateful that this school is home to such a well-run student publication that strives to give voices to many, maintaining self-awareness in its shortcomings. I’m grateful for the power journalism can have when its very existence rests on the cultivation of social responsibility, the discourse it can encourage in these select scenarios. And here’s a really broad sentiment: I’m grateful for words, for the people who use them to initiate positive social change and to demonstrate vulnerability. I’m grateful for language that empowers, that interrogates and that re-interrogates societal norms while exploring the stories of both individuals and the masses.

Simultaneously, I’m hit with a thought about what it means to write for a student publication like this one. Have I deserved the platform that I’ve been given, an inexperienced writer with semi-minimal campus involvement and no experiences of marginalization? It seems I may have shirked some of my own social responsibilities as a columnist with the privilege of white skin and a public platform. A self-titled “health and wellness” columnist for the semester, I’ve limited myself to columns that veer from the rigorous risk-taking and opinion-stating of many of my peers.

Maybe I was afraid of my own inexperience, that I might not know how to navigate these more complex issues in a totally productive way. My failure to use this platform to do so over the course of the semester is, essentially, the definition of privilege. I’m not proud of this in the slightest, but it’s something for which I’m accountable.

However, I will say I don't think this platform should be grounds for experimentation with discussions around such tough topics either. If I did approach these more socially charged issues in my columns, I wanted to be sure that my responses demonstrated 750 to 1,000 words of intellectual rigor, of consciously chosen language and moral responsibility.

But regardless, the fact is that I didn’t really use this platform to create careful meditations on polarizing issues. I pretty much stayed within my comfort zone and rested on the more classical definitions of the “health and wellness” label I’d originally adopted at the beginning of the semester, without weaving this topic into the context of current events on campus.

Upon reflection, this seems irresponsible. Especially in light of this country’s era of Donald Trump, the combination of privilege and a platform should be enough to hold myself to a high standard of accountability for discussing these pressing issues, no matter the level of publicity my articles might be receiving.

And what of the gratitude I feel for the power of the University’s student publications, anyway? I mean, it’s an easy gratitude for me to personally feel. I have the ability to sit back and watch as productive discourse unfolds, catalyzed by articles I more than likely did not write. The content addressed by the more socially responsible articles will not affect my own safety on campus. It will not affect the ease with which I can get my voice heard at the University the way it might affect that of some of my friends and classmates.

Contemplating my own reasons for applying to be a columnist this semester, I do wonder: “Were they valid ones?” I’ve never been great at sharing my writing or expressing my opinions, and I guess I wanted to “challenge” myself — of course, I should’ve moved further past this original comfort zone and into some more commentary on timely campus occurrences. I think I was given a platform, and I don't think I utilized it in a totally productive way.

I think about laziness and poor planning, how some of my columns were written to meet deadlines rather than to commit to a standard of social responsibility. I think about privilege and the power of a platform, how I’m a white person who gets to self-interrogate on this page while many important voices and stories remain unheard.

I have a long way to go until I can say that I’m standing as tall as possible on the platform I’ve been given.

Josie Tolin can be reached at jostolin@umich.edu.