The Dangers of the Swat Bubble

Have you ever spent an afternoon whimsically gazing up at the sky and wondered: “Is whatever’s up there a racist?” If so, you can sleep easy tonight knowing that your wait is finally over. This Spring, you can take an actual course titled “Is God a White Supremacist?” because this is Swarthmore and of course you can. According to the course catalog, the class will “address religious theories justifying racial domination, engage in critical examination of the influence of religious thought both past and present on comparative global racisms, and transnational whiteness.” This only brings more questions to mind. What on earth is “transnational whiteness?” Just how racist is God? Is he like your kooky uncle who spends Thanksgiving dinner making snide remarks about “those people,” or is he more like someone who would vote for David Duke?

All kidding aside, while I’m certain the class will cover a variety of important topics, it’s title is an example of the sort of phenomenon that echo chambers inevitably produce. When we surround ourselves with people who agree with us, virtue signaling takes priority over substance. That’s why Breitbart runs articles like “Racist, Pro-Nazi Roots of Planned Parenthood Revealed” and Salon publishes headlines like “Richard Nixon: A Man Transfixed by Panda Sex.” It goes without saying that only hyper-partisans would take this sort of rhetoric seriously because it confirms what they already suspect.

What’s even more troublesome is when this type of extreme  language becomes the norm, and straying from it becomes forbidden, as is becoming commonplace on college campuses. At UC Berkeley, innocuous sayings like I believe the most qualified person should get the job” are now considered microaggressions, and at Liberty University, professors have gone so far as to delete sections about homosexuality from their psychology textbooks. Here at Swarthmore, language like “Is God a White Supremacist?” is so customary that it seems tame by Swat standards. People from every side of the spectrum should agree that the best way to combat ideas you disagree with is by confronting them directly, not suppressing them and wishing that they would go away.

Students often complain about the “Swat bubble,” and in my time as a tour guide, I was frequently asked about diversity of thought in our community. I always joked that we have a multitude of political ideologies: Democrats, Socialists, Democratic Socialists, Socialist Democrats, etc. I couldn’t be happier that Swarthmore serves as an incubator for new and sometimes controversial ideas, but there is a clear double standard when it comes to what we do and don’t tolerate. We can have classes with names like “Is God a White Supremacist?” without more than the occasional eye-roll, but when AEI on Campus hosts an event analyzing the rise of Donald Trump, their posters are taken down within hours for the crime of explaining Trump from a nonpartisan angle. We host workshops on “The Sexual Politics of Topping” without batting an eye, but when award-winning community projects such as the Human Library are brought to campus, they receive criticism for “marginalizing” people through the unspeakable evil of letting them speak about their experiences on their own terms. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be comfortable with any of those things, but rather that we should be open to critically examining every idea and event on campus regardless of where it originated.

Of course, the Swat bubble is just that, a bubble, so instead of being ready talk about the Trump campaign so we can challenge it, we are left with feelings of confusion and helplessness because these discussions aren’t always acceptable to have on campus. And instead of taking into account legitimate aspects of Trump’s appeal such as frustration with conventional politics and a fear of the economic and social changes that come with globalization, we ignore his supporters’ concerns and blast them as racists. These tactics work well if you’re concerned about virtue signaling, but they completely backfire if you’re actually trying to convince a Trump supporter not to vote for him. In this way, the Swat bubble hurts liberal students the most, because while conservatives leave Swarthmore having heard every counter-argument in the book, liberal students can graduate after four years with absolutely no experience winning people over to their side.

A final troubling aspect of this phenomenon is that students could soon be forced to take classes like “Is God a White Supremacist?” through the proposed social justice requirement. By passing a requirement that forces students at an already ideologically lopsided campus to take classes on social justice in order to graduate, we would effectively drive away every moderate and open-minded prospective student and ensure that Swarthmore becomes more akin to a pricey echo chamber than the elite college it should be. Instead of compelling students to subject themselves to mandatory ideological education, we should strive to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to challenge ideas without suppressing them, and promote them without proselytizing.

Featured image courtesy of the www.swarthmore.edu.

UPDATE: Nov 4, 10:51 a.m: Indirect references to social media comments were removed.


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12 comments

  1. 11
    Siddharth Srivatsan ( User Karma: 28 ) says:

    Great article. I do think though there is a percentage of Trump supporters that are “unreachable”, in that no amount of critical dialogue would ever convince them to switch their allegiance (the alt-right kind of people).

  2. 10
    Michael ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Thank you for this. “Diversity” and “tolerance” only truly exist when they go BOTH ways, allowing people to freely express varied perspectives without fear of getting burned at the stake for divergence.

  3. 8
    CA 2014 says:

    While I fully agree that Swarthmore could do more to be inclusive and tolerant of those with alternate viewpoints, I take issue with you claim that classes on social justice would be alienating to moderate and conservative students. Inherent in that claim is the assumption that moderates and conservatives do not care about or are frightened by social justice issues and by extensions the history, experiences, and struggles of marginalized peoples. I am a moderate and a Swarthmore alumnus, and I find that somewhat insulting. Social Justice does not have to be a partisan issue. Someone can care about the rights and struggles of historically marginalized people and want to learn more about them without compromising the core of their political beliefs. If you are threatened by the idea of confronting such histories then it sounds like it may be something that you need. As this current election cycle has taught us, ignoring the ugly history of our nation does not make it go away. To fully understand a situation, one must learn about all sides, and the truth is that much of the stuff that would be covered in a social justice class is the stuff that many curriculums gloss over. Learning about social justice is not a threat. It is an opportunity to become a more empathetic and informed individual whatever your political alignment. If you feel otherwise then I recommend you stop by the Peace Collection or the Quaker Archive sometime to learn more.

  4. 7
    Hazlett says:

    This article goes all over the place, so let me just respond to your points about the shock value of Tariq al-Jamil’s class: I’m sure Professor al-Jamil intends that class title (“Is God a white supremacist?”) to be contentious. It’s playing on the echo chamber, not simply reflecting it. And if we take a look at other course titles in next semester’s course catalog, I think it’s obvious that language so strongly associated with a specific political rhetoric is not the norm, as you would have it; “Race, gender, class, and the environment” is a comparable example, I think, but doesn’t imply anything, as does Tariq’s question. I find your assertions that loaded language necessitates a lack of substance or disallows dissent (especially in classes!) much too simplistic. While it’s certainly worth debating the extent to which the hyper-liberalization of student discourse affects our intellectual growth and the manner in which we relate to others, I don’t think you got there in this article. It might be useful to actually take this epitome of the echo chamber (“Is God a white supremacist?”) in order to nuance your understanding of “ideological education” at Swarthmore.

  5. 6
    Susan Aldous says:

    Great article! While I understand where your critics are coming from, I think you did a good job highlighting the double standard that plagues not only Swarthmore, but elite institutions as a whole.

  6. 1
    DDog says:

    While I think that the Swat bubble is real and your concerns might be valid had they been worded differently, I feel like in shitting on this religion class and sexual politics workshop, you’re guilty of the very crime you pin on Swatties. I think what you were trying to get at is that interacting with and engaging in dialogue about alternative ideologies is important, and I totally agree with that. However, in this article you seem to be unwilling to do just that. Why not give one of these Crazy Liberal Swattie classes/workshops a try, engage with that ideology you seem to be opposed to, before you go talking them down? Are you really going to try and devalue the importance of learning about racism in religion, or the complex history and dynamics of topping before even giving them a second thought? You also mention people having problems with the Human Library Project, but again, why not try to listen to these concerns and accept disagreement with grace? The project is happening anyway, with a number of enthusiastic supporters. After all, like you said, “we should strive to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to challenge ideas without suppressing them.” Again, I agree. But I think you’re really contradicting yourself with the dismissive, demeaning, and defensive tone of this piece. Maybe you should take a listen to the people around you once in a while.

    1. 7
      Gilbert Guerra '19 ( User Karma: 10 ) says:

      Thanks for your feedback, the point of this piece wasn’t to shit on the class, it was to point out the double standard in what we allow to be criticized without question and what we don’t. Similarly, I’m not saying we shouldn’t criticize things like the Human Library, I’m saying that we should feel comfortable critiquing any idea on campus. As for listening to people around me and giving “those crazy workshops a try”, I’m taking Intro to Peace and Conflict studies this semester specifically for that purpose. Thanks again for giving it a read.

  7. 0
    Yvonne Chireau says:

    In 1973 Professor William Jones of the University of Florida wrote an academic study that utilized a humanist criticism of Black Christianity, inspired in part by Rabbi Richard Rubenstein’s book AFTER AUSCHWITZ, a book that leveled a strident critique of religion in the “death of God” theological and philosophical format. Jones’ important book was called IS GOD A WHITE RACIST? and remains a vital primary text in the study of political theology and radical Christian thought.

    Clearly Prof. al-Jamil is signifying on this academic work in the title of his course; but you don’t know that, and you won’t know that, because you assume many things that reflect your ignorance. It’s quite damning, and not what I expect from a Swarthmore student.

    Your comments are very uninformed and poorly stated. I certainly hope you don’t approach your studies at the College in this way. You don’t seem to know much about Religion, but you have a lot to say about what goes on in one of the courses in the program (which has not yet been taught). Please feel free to come by the Religion department some time and we would be glad to teach you many more things and answer your questions.

    1. 17
      Joseph O'Hara says:

      This is an incredibly unprofessional thing for a professor to write publicly about a student. We all know that the Swarthmore faculty is generally to the left of the already-left-leaning American academy to begin with, but this was flagrant and personal. You have no idea how much Gilbert knows about religion, and to think you do is disturbing in its own right. To the extent you hope Gilbert does not approach his classes like in this manner, I hope you never interact with the student body like this again. Gilbert deserves an apology. I suggest you search deep within yourself and examine why you want to be an academic in the first place – is it to commune with difficult ideas or to publicly shame undergrads who are trying to make sense of the world around them?

      Sincerely,

      Joseph O’Hara, class of 2012
      joseph.v.ohara@gmail.com

    2. 4
      Gilbert Guerra '19 ( User Karma: 10 ) says:

      Professor Chireau,

      Firstly, thank you for bringing that detail to my attention. I want to reiterate that the purpose of this article was not to attack Professor al-Jamil or even his class, it was to highlight the difference in what kind of rhetoric is considered acceptable here and what kind is not, as well as the consequences of that on the student body.

      Secondly, I reached out to Professor al-Jamil before this article to get more background on the course. I never heard back, so I had to go off the description of the class in the course catalog.

      Thanks again for bringing this up,

      Gilbert Guerra ’19

  8. 0
    CA 2014 says:

    While I agree diversity of thought is important and the Swat culture could try to be more tolerant of alternative viewpoints, I take issue with your claim that a social justice requirement would be alienating to moderates and conservatives. Social justice does not by any means have to be a partisan issue. Suggesting that conservatives and moderates do not care about the issues of marginalized people and their struggles is insulting to conservatives and moderates. I am a moderate and a proud Swat alumnus, and yet I am by no means turned off by a the idea of forcing all students to engage in some way with the idea of social justice. If anything, the requirement seems to be a gesture towards the “Quaker Values” that the administration loves to invoke whenever offered the opportunity. The history of marginalized people and their struggle to find freedom and equality in the world is an important part of culture, and understanding it is necessary in order to understand the current political climates in this and other nations. If even the idea of studying the history of social justice movements is threatening to you, then it sounds like something that you really need to try. You should maybe even visit the Peace Collection or the Quaker Archive for a change of pace (they have a Nobel Peace Prize that you can see if you ask really nicely). You might learn something.

  9. 0
    '16 says:

    Your virtue signaling is a false equivalence because Margaret Sanger was a racist eugenicist whom Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton have praised… whereas who cares if Richard Nixon made some comments about panda mating. Breitbart often sucks, but they’re right on that front.

    That being said, good piece and appreciate you writing it – not that it will get through to many Swatties.

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