The Boundaries of Our Compassion.  The Borders of Our Mercy.

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Photo credit: Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Paris, the outpouring of support for the city was nothing short of overwhelming, dominating newsfeeds and airwaves.  In the week that followed, the question of whether the United States should accept refugees from Syria touched off one of the most divisive debates in recent memory.

Both the immediate reaction and the way it has hideously morphed into a line in the sand should tell us something about ourselves and the lives we truly value.

It’s natural that our compassion for the victims in Paris would flow quickly.  It is a compassion rooted in affinity for a city our country often romanticizes.  It is also a compassion tinged with fear.  ”They look like me.”  “I have friends there.”  “I’ve been on those streets.”  “That could just as easily have been us.”  

There is nothing wrong with our immediate and profuse mourning for Paris, but that doesn’t make it right that our compassion for others in farther reaches of the globe rarely even begins.  Similar attacks in Beirut the day before and in Mali one week after received barely a fraction of the attention.  

We say that we can’t care about everything.  We can’t carry that much hurt in our hearts.  We can’t grieve for every crisis that befalls our world or we would do little else but grieve.  

If we truly believe our capacity for compassion is the problem here, we are kidding ourselves.  And we are only hurting ourselves in the long run.

When we grieve only with those who “look like us,” we draw an ever thicker boundary between the part of the world we are saying warrants our compassion and the part of the world we are saying we can’t devote our mental or emotional energy toward.  When we wall ourselves off from compassion for those we don’t identify with–because they come from a city of ruin rather than a city of light–we only perpetuate a divide that gives root to the seeds of fear and hatred–on both sides. Continue reading

Free Press, Free Expression and “Coddled” Students: The Evolution of a Week of Campus Activism

Photo credit: Mitch Bennett

Last week began with the resignation of Mizzou’s president amid racial tensions on campus, brought to the forefront by a student’s hunger strike and the football team’s boycott of future practices and games. Clashes between protesters and the press followed, with some staff and faculty members coming under fire for their roles in an aggressive confrontation on the university quad.  Protesters had claimed as a “safe space” and media-free zone, and the story turned to a narrative pitting students’ struggle for equality against freedom of the press. A social media backlash and threats against black students led to the arrest of two white students.

At Yale, another story was playing out on a very different campus. An email from a faculty member decrying the university’s “censure and prohibition” of students’ free expression (in the form of racially insensitive Halloween costumes), coupled with several black students being denied admission to a “whites only” frat party, ignited debate on campus. Though tensions never reached quite the same boiling point as they did at Mizzou, the story linked students’ struggle for equality with a growing sense that universities are so afraid of controversy and offense that they are handling students with kid gloves and doing little to prepare them for “the real world.”

As the week unfolded, students and faculty of color and their allies gathered at campuses nationwide in shows of solidarity. University administrators pulled together student forums and issued statements on diversity and inclusion, tolerance and intolerance, justice and injustice. On social media, ‪#‎blackoncampus‬ shed light on black students’ and alumni’s encounters with racism.

Ok, that’s a lot of context-setting. So what?

I stand wholeheartedly with students who are calling out both individual and structural racism on their campuses and demanding action. But I struggled with a few key aspects of the way the events at Mizzou and Yale have unfolded–freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and the criticism of our overly-PC culture. These issues made me hesitate to speak up.  In the meantime, I devoured everything I could about what was unfolding–news, commentary, Facebook posts, tweets.  By deliberately removing myself from the conversation, I was able to watch how the stories evolved over the course of a week and finally begin to dissect my own feelings.  That process of reflection served as the impetus for creating this blog, a slow reaction to our fast news cycles. Continue reading