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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Border Poster Controversy

Child of immigrants from Central America (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Child of immigrants from Central America (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Looking at the impact on persons

Brian J. Buckley

Brian J. Buckley is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Santa Clara University and an emerging issues fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  Views are his own.

Recently, a flyer was secretly posted on the Santa Clara University campus.  It contained a picture of a personified United States nervously trying to protect itself from a grasping hand from the South.  It featured the phrase “No means No!” in big letters at the top and had a hashtag #MyBordersMyChoice at the bottom.  Subsequent to this posting, the President of the university, Michael Engh, S.J., wrote to all persons on campus.  In an email entitled “Disagreement and Civil Discourse on Campus,” Engh criticized the flyer for not being part of a constructive conversation.  He noted that the flyer purposefully used racist and xenophobic imagery and mocked a phrase meant to bring attention to an indifference toward sexual assault against women. 

Concentrating on that imagery and those phrases, I suggest here to consider the flyer in light of the students and others on campus who saw it and happen to be people of color, of undocumented status, women, or who are otherwise marginalized.  That is, instead of making arguments against or disputing any weak assumptions or generalizations in the flyer, it might be fruitful here instead to consider its impact on people: how would a targeted or personally implicated person feel when seeing it.

Charles Taylor wrote in his Multiculturalism that people are dialogical in character and learn who they are by the recognition or lack of recognition given by others.   “[M]y discovering my own identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation, but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others. That is why the development of an ideal of inwardly generated identity gives a new importance to recognition. My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others.”

Imagine an undocumented SCU student named Maria, who was born in Central America but grew up in Arizona.  Traveling far from family and neighborhood, she comes to SCU, seeking new friends, hoping to learn new things.  If Taylor is right, Maria will come to understand her importance by the gestures and considerations of others.  As a communal being, her self will be worked out and evolve by relationships (even lack of relationships) with others here.  She is not in a vacuum, living out a generic life.  Rather, she is at this school, living out her own life, developing a specific identity within a personal narrative.  In being on campus and around SCU people, she learns about her self and her importance by whether or not she is greeted, ignored, ridiculed, invited, praised, represented, or otherwise dismissed.  She gains self-understanding by the professors who stereotype her, the staff who greet her, the students who ignore her, and any person in the hallways who tells jokes or stories that implicate her. 

The dialogical nature of humans is an organic and osmotic thing—growing or diminishing our personal estimation by the kind of interactions we have with others.  “[M]isrecognition shows not just a lack of due respect,” Taylor writes.  “It can inflict a grievous wound, saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred.  Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people.  It is a vital human need.”

The perilous discovery of a person’s identity and narrative self through dialogues with others who recognize or dismiss them means that personal interactions and discussions with others are not merely a question of kindness or etiquette; they are about teaching others by our acts and regard that they matter (or not).  Our very behavior always conveys our estimation of their worth to us.  And, in turn, according to Taylor, this is internalized.  For vulnerable groups in particular, any positive recognition could then be a lifeline needed to help them keep going.    

In the case of the flyer, Maria, far from home, undocumented herself, is then confronted with this flyer, not with an argument or a constructive criticism.  As Engh said, the flyer did not “promote discourse.”  Instead, the viewer was offered a provocative charge of her unimportance, of her peripheral place vis-à-vis “regular” Americans.  The flyer “insults by demeaning those whom it rejects,” as Engh noted.  Furthermore, Maria would see this flyer in a context of other campus acts of destruction and graffiti in the past few years singling out other traditionally marginalized persons, such as LGBT+ persons.  So, although a woman, she would not read the flyer as a white woman would, who might be offended by its sexist language.  Instead, the flyer is a personal charge against her and “her kind,” that her existence here is assaulting America.  (There was no grasping hand coming from the North.)  She is the problem.  And as a person, she is not seen.  The flyer makes no distinction between those from the South who are good willed and those who are not, those who work hard and those who do not, those who are taking their place within a vibrant democracy and those who are not.  Instead, it invokes a demeaning “they” status on such persons, not allowing them an equal recognition.  Maria is not accorded the “Thou” status that Martin Buber so eloquently articulated.  Her personal struggles do not matter; her hopes and dreams are not germane; her family’s difficulties are not considered.  Rather, she is part of those assaulting America.  And, sadly, as Taylor claims, she may even begin to view herself that way, moving toward the “degenerating sense of nobodiness” that Martin Luther King described in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.    

As such, the flyer cannot be part of an overarching campus free speech debate over immigration.  In such a debate, there would be arguments and counterarguments meant to throw light upon various considerations and political solutions.  While not always comfortable, these debates are an important part of a healthy college atmosphere.  Students and others grow and improve by the exposure to different, even off-putting ideas.  Those discussing could be frustrated or even in strong disagreement.  But they are not attacked for who they are.  The flyer, however, is different. It portrays Maria’s very presence in the United States as problematic.

As Engh understood, this type of flyer is not conducive to an energized and important national debate.  It is not part of a civically engaged populace disagreeing about burning national matters.  Rather, it harms those who feel in many ways that they already don’t have “a place at the table”--people who may live with elevated stress from an increasingly xenophobic political climate that belittles their contributions to society. 

We can only hope that such things can be countered by a broader and sustained dialogue from others (teachers, staff, students, parents, and administrators) whose very behavior indicates that all are welcome, that all are seen, that all matter, that all are our fellow Broncos.  This counter-narrative can display a broad recognition of persons even while possibly disagreeing with their political arguments and stances.  It is worth remembering that it is always possible to make an argument that disagrees with others without diminishing them.  To do anything else is hurtful, unnecessary, violative of the dignity of the human person, and not part of the mission of Santa Clara University. 

Feb 16, 2018

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