Lauren Schandevel: Progress is privilege

Thursday, February 16, 2017 - 10:16am

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Even before the election, my county served as a huge lure for journalists who were hungry for a peek into the lives of traditional, working-class individuals. In the 1980s, the term “Reagan Democrat” was coined about its residents in reference to blue collar workers who flipped Republican after a long track record of voting Democrat. This year, Rolling Stone labeled Macomb County, Michigan, “Trump County, USA” in a provocative headline, and the Guardian seemed to dismiss us as lazy hicks who blissfully refuse to read the news. But despite all the bad publicity, it is important to note that not everyone in Macomb County voted for Trump, and many residents of the area are actually pretty progressive — just not in ways that are easily recognizable to University of Michigan students. 

For context, Macomb County is located in southeast Michigan and is known for being predominantly white and working class. The area’s historical reliance on the auto industry means the effects of globalization, outsourcing and the 2008 financial crisis not only decimated the economy over time, but destroyed the trust of its residents in government as well. In local elections, folks still tend to vote Democrat. On the national stage, however, thinning patience with establishment politics has made it increasingly likely for an outsider candidate to triumph over a career politician, if only for the sheer satisfaction of “sticking it to the man.”

But while these people are tired and angry, that anger does not always translate into bigotry. In fact, most of my friends back home hold fundamental views that closely match those of the average left-leaning University of Michigan student, though they would still probably be ostracized in elite liberal circles for being problematic or ignorant. This is because the standard for sociopolitical consciousness at the University is extremely high — students here are hyper-aware of their own prejudices and assumptions and have adopted the habit of routinely checking themselves to accommodate others.

While this is an incredible feat for us, people who have had little exposure to academia or progressive spaces (by no fault of their own) are not conditioned to do the same and can seem rude or unsophisticated at times as a result of their inexperience. 

Part of this outgroup scrutiny, I think, is rooted in our inability to acknowledge the privileges we have as college students. After all, in many ways, a commitment to activism is a commitment to incessant education. By attending an elite institution, we are afforded both time and a myriad of resources to better ourselves, to reading and interacting with people who have had a variety of experiences and hold views that are different from our own. Questioning our beliefs, analyzing our implicit biases and evaluating our positionalities (even just knowing what the word positionality means) takes a focused kind of energy that is not so easily attainable outside academia. Moreover, having a place to intellectualize our everyday experiences and synthesize multiple perspectives is something a lot of us encounter for the first time in college — and not everyone is lucky enough to go to college. We tend to forget the significance of this when we critique others for their shortcomings.

Consequently, progressive circles lend themselves to a kind of tragic irony: As they become more and more committed to inclusivity, they unknowingly shut out people who don’t meet their standards of tolerance and consciousness. Outsiders who are not so attuned to these rapidly evolving ideologies — who occasionally flub a pronoun or butcher a name they have never encountered before — are often written off as insensitive or ignorant without further analysis. In our dismissal of what we interpret as bigotry, we alienate people who may otherwise be open to learning; we turn progressive politics into an exclusive club reserved for only the most educated and conscientious while failing to acknowledge that progress itself implies a constant movement toward something better — a spectrum rather than an absolute.

Moving forward, we cannot be so quick to repudiate people we perceive as being less educated on the issues than ourselves. It is time to turn our sermons of tolerance and acceptance inward — to understand that not everyone can stay on top of the latest developments in progressive theory, as they may not have access to spaces in which this information is readily available. Be patient and learn to recognize that the ability to pursue higher education and all that it entails is an advantage that very few can access. Our job is to relay the information we learn here to others, not look down at them from our high horses because they cannot explain concepts like intersectionality in sufficient detail.

Lauren Schandevel can be reached at schandla@umich.edu