Opinion | Columns

Discourse on discourse

Being a straight white male at Columbia is not as easy as it seems. Odds are, I’ve just lost 50 percent of my readership. The other 25 percent are already writing an angry comment, and the other 25 percent are confused as to why they’re reading the Columbia Daily Spectator in the first place.

But let me try to dig myself out of this hole. I wrote my last column about privilege, and I’m very aware of the concept, especially as it pertains to myself. Maybe I’ve had a slightly harder life than Spectrum blogger Max Beckhard lays out in his recent op-ed, but for the most part, things were easy—I grew up in a nice little suburban town, went to a good public school, had a supportive family, etc. I’ve had the typical experience that most would expect of your average straight white American male, save a few details. I’m Jewish, which certainly could be a serious problem in some parts of the world, but which has never been an issue for me. I’m not rich—I’ve always had at least one steady job since I was 13—but I’m certainly not economically disadvantaged, so this has never been a real challenge except for, maybe, college admissions. In short, I’ve had it good, so what is there to complain about?

There have been a couple recent columns on this page about dialogue on campus—one by Jake Goldwasser (full disclosure, he’s my suitemate), and one by Sarina Bhandari, which I recommend you check out if you haven’t already. The gist of them is that a) debate is only accepted within a certain spectrum of opinion here at Columbia, and b) even within that spectrum, people hold on way too strongly to their opinions, with no room for concession or flexibility. I want to add a third caveat to this discussion on discussions—debates on campus are often incredibly alienating.

And here comes the part where I go against the firing squad, but certain debates on campus are not easy to be a part of as a straight white male, or at least not easy to have certain opinions on. And the reason my opinion is not allowed into the marketplace, or at least respected as valid, is solely because of my identity, especially when the overarching question is on identity.

And I don’t think that this is necessarily bad circular reasoning—my background and experience have determined my opinions, and my lack of perspective handicaps my ability to fully understand certain concepts. I think in debates of identity—on race, on gender, on sexual orientation, and on class—one’s own identity should constantly be taken into question and considered. My issue is when one’s identity completely shuts one out, which, in my opinion, happens quite a bit.

So here’s my problem. In debates on feminism, I cannot deviate at all from the general consensus without having my opinion completely called into question for being a man. On questions of race, the same happens due to my perceived whiteness. And in my experience, debates on class don’t really happen on campus to the same degree as the other two, which constantly frustrates me. And the worst part is that people in the comment board will inevitably call this entire column completely invalid or unnecessary due to my white maleness and to the fact that my inherent patriarchal colonialism has controlled every debate I have ever been a part of, so I have absolutely no reason to bitch and moan.

And I know a lot of people still reading this column are probably having a train of thought along the lines of, “Oh, poor white boy. Nobody ever listens to him,” which is not what I’m trying to say at all, and which is also exactly my point. I’ve had every opportunity in my life to develop and voice my opinions, more so than just about every other subset of humans on earth. That, however, does not mean that my opinion is not grounded in thought, and rationality, and the ability to empathize. I want to be able to engage in a debate like this one without that being the first comment.

To say an opinion is entirely based on one’s identity insults one’s ability to form opinions, and, more problematically, horribly defeats the entire point of discussions about identity—that identity is an incredibly complex thing, and there’s a lot more to someone than just being a straight white male, or anything else. This isn’t an issue that I lose sleep over, so I’m not trying to paint this as some huge hardship that affects my life. I do think it’s interesting enough to bring up in a Spec column, though, and I do think it extends further than just my boring counterparts—alienation happens all over campus, to all sorts of people. Successful movements are built on inclusion. So is progress. Alienation never solves any issue, and snark rarely does. Pushing discourse forward means having open discussions and building solidarity. 

 Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Fridays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

I like this. It needed to be said.

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Anonymous posted on

Couldn't have said it better. Thanks for this Leo.

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X posted on

Brave

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Finally posted on

This couldn't be more accurate- but expect to be vilified

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Anonymous posted on

As someone who fits into all sorts of groups that like to discredit your opinion as a straight white male, I SUPPORT THIS.

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Seriously? posted on

Leo, you're better than that first sentence. And I'm not quite sure what the point of this piece is--you recognize that this "problem" (wow for once your opinion isn't inherently valued simply because of your gender/race) isn't nearly as bad as it is for people whose opinions are discounted every day of their lives simply because of their identities. So what do you want here? For people who face oppression every day of their lives to be nicer to you? That's a selfish goal, and if you really care about these issues you'll spend more energy trying to make yourself a better ally than whining about things that make you feel a little icky sometimes.

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Yo posted on

did you read past the first sentence, tho?

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DilloTank posted on

People in America do not face oppression. People in North Korea face oppression. Wise up.

Did you know that people eat their children in North Korea when there is no food?

Why are Ivy League college student so bloody ignorant? It's not your fault, the American university is a very corrupt institution, generally speaking. This is not to say that good things don't happen there.

The most important lesson I learned in college was that the university actually stood in the way of me understanding the real world.

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Anonymous posted on

...why exactly are you commenting on an undergraduate newspaper opinion column when you both 1) seem not to be an undergraduate anymore and 2) don't seem to have gone to Columbia at all.

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Anonymous posted on

You are completely misreading his argument: he isn't asking for those who face oppression to be nicer to him, he's simply saying that even if he is not oppressed, he has an opinion on issues such as gender, race and class and he would like his opinion to be respected, not disregarded. This, to me, is a completely valid argument that I have found to be true in any debate that I engage in, in class or with my peers.

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Anonymous posted on

"To say an opinion is entirely based on one’s identity insults one’s ability to form opinions, and, more problematically, horribly defeats the entire point of discussions about identity—that identity is an incredibly complex thing, and there’s a lot more to someone than just being a straight white male, or anything else." -- YES. Thanks, Leo, it needed to be said.

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DilloTank posted on

One's 'identity', as used in the context of this article i.e. whether or not someone is straight or gay, white or black, is completely unimportant to me. If that is what you think defines you, you are a pitiable soul.

I do not blame you. I do hold American educational institutions is contempt for warping the minds of our young people so horribly. I fear that Americans will no longer have the clarity of thought required to maintain a free country that is the protector of the free world.

Does anyone at Columbia understand that the free world is on the verge of collapsing? Don't laugh, the free world was on the verge of collapsing in the 1940s. In Winston Churchill's book, 'The Gathering Storm', Churchill states that at the close of WWII, that "the peace has not been secured" and that "the enemies we will face in the future are much more formidable than the Nazis.

Don't laugh, remember Churchill was exiled from British politics for stating the Hitler was a dangerous menace.

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DilloTank posted on

You people live on a different planet. Does anyone at Columbia believe in objective truth? That is truth that is true for gay people and straight people, black people and white people, and so on?

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CC '15 posted on

wow. very intelligent spec oped.

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Sarina posted on

I fist-pumped when I finished reading this article. Also, this is the best first paragraph I've ever read. Thanks for bringing light to this issue. I really appreciate it and will definitely be referencing this article in future conversations about identity.

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Anonymous posted on

This is a guy who claims to be open-minded and flexible to what people of other identities have to say, but I once heard him complaining about how stupid the concept of preferred gender pronouns for transgender people were. I'm not going to say that his opinions are fully invalid, but I would suggest actually behaving in a manner more conducive to the qualities of a supposed "liberal" ally.

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Classy posted on

Mm nothing like anonymous hearsay

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Anonymous posted on

How much do you actually listen to discourses of identity on this campus, Leo Schwartz? Any ROOTed meetings you've attended in the past? FemSex? Radical C.U.N.T.S? GendeRevolution? A class with the excellent CSER department? How much effort have you actually put into listening and asking questions first before offering opinions?

Like many other conventional well-meaning liberals I know, I suspect the problem is less you being invalidated on the basis of your identity than the probability that you know a lot less than you think you know, have much less to offer in an opinion regarding identity politics than you think you do, and act offended when people call you out on it.

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Anonymous posted on

How much do you actually listen to discourses of identity on this campus, Leo Schwartz? Any ROOTed meetings you've attended in the past? FemSex? Radical C.U.N.T.S? GendeRevolution? A class with the excellent CSER department? How much effort have you actually put into listening and asking questions first before offering opinions?

Like many other conventional well-meaning liberals I know, I suspect the problem is less you being invalidated on the basis of your identity than the probability that you know a lot less than you think you know, have much less to offer in an opinion regarding identity politics than you think you do, and act offended when people call you out on it.

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Anonymous posted on

Typical Columbian intellectual arrogance. Your comment only revalidates Leo's article.

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CSER Grad posted on

Have you ever questioned whether these spaces are inclusive to white male students? Maybe in rhetoric but not in practice. I also think productive conversations on identity are possible outside of these spaces. True, white students are not participating as actively in these spaces as they could be but as someone who graduated from CSER I can tell you that practically everyone there specialized in their own ethnicity of which they had personal investments in knowing more about. So what would convince a white person in this oh so white world to voluntarily participate in these spaces when they are perceived as hostile to those who identify as white or experience whiteness? If the spaces are not welcoming to him, you cannot invalidate his critique for not being informed by the knowledge circulated there.

Not to disregard that white liberals often time miss the mark on these issues and parade their privilege for all to see, especially to people of color. However, this student wants to participate in the debate and as long as he feels alienated from these spaces it will be difficult to move these discussions to a more productive phase - if productivity is what your into. Many so-called social justice advocates I have met are much more interested in retribution than justice and have a vested interest in keeping white students out of the conversation.

Yet, I think many students of color are so tired of the ignorance displayed by others that they are quick to disregard valid critiques. As someone who has graduated from the Center and has invested their career/life in social justice, I urge you to be open to the spirit of this piece even if you are inclined to see it as another butt-hurt white boy.

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Anonymous posted on

Leo, this is a great piece I just wish you weren't so apologetic the whole time. I understand that you are trying to cover your back and not receive the type of tirade your piece is trying to criticize but honestly those types of people are going to make the same comments regardless of whether or not you apologize. You have a good point, in that it needs to be said, and you should not be so tentative to put it out there. After all, it is an opinion column and why would you apologize for feeling the way that you do?

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Anonymous posted on

If you haven't had the same experiences as any of the minorities you mentioned, then your opinion immediately loses some credibility when placed against the voice of someone who has had to endure years of being disenfranchised.

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regarding the people in space with "slightly harder lives" posted on

building solidarity and moving towards progress also comes with the acknowledgement that opinions don't stand alone or exist in a vacuum that excludes identity. do you or do you not want to be included in discussions on this campus around identity? are you afraid to try simply because of your identity? why assume that you will be written off in these spaces because of your identity, the way you just have written off discussions on gender and race as being dominated by a "general consensus" you see rejecting personal experience, active listening, mutual respect and favoring exclusion? how does this article in itself alienate certain readers based on their identities?

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regarding the people in space with "slightly harder lives" posted on

building solidarity and moving towards progress also comes with the acknowledgement that opinions don't stand alone or exist in a vacuum that excludes identity. do you or do you not want to be included in discussions on this campus around identity? are you afraid to try simply because of your identity? why assume that you will be written off in these spaces because of your identity, the way you just have written off discussions on gender and race as being dominated by a "general consensus" you see rejecting personal experience, active listening, mutual respect and favoring exclusion? how does this article in itself alienate certain readers based on their identities?

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Anonymous posted on

As a gay liberal, this is extremely gratifying. There's nothing more annoying than having fellow liberals blind to their own biases. Thanks for putting yourself in the firing range.

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Anonymous posted on

I agree with comments above about this article's eloquence and cogency. This is a hard issue to talk about, Leo. Thank you for voicing.

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Anonymous posted on

I get where you're coming from, but it's worth noting that people will get mad at you even though you have "opinions grounded in thought and rationality" because they may not have had that luxury. It can be difficult to maintain an air of detached logic when you've been hurt by, say, racism or sexism.

I do think your opinions (and those of other white men) are worth considering, but we need to keep in mind that viewpoints from your demographic dominate the discussion most everywhere except places like Columbia. I agree that discussion here is imbalanced, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It can be refreshing.

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cc16 posted on

“Oh, poor white boy. Nobody ever listens to him" =exactly what i was thinking.
however once I put that aside, I can see the interesting point you're making. well said

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Maggie Alden posted on

I've never been punched in the crotch. I punch you in the crotch and you tell me that it hurts. If my opinion is that you're wrong, that it can't hurt that much, is that as valid an opinion as yours?

I think you're making some fair points, here, and if you're being denied the chance to speak because of pre-existing stereotypes, that's one thing. But if an opinion denies the validity of an experience—if, for example, I insisted that it couldn't have hurt that much when I punched you in the crotch, because my hand didn't hurt when I did it—well, then you have every right to call my opinion into question. Unless, that is, you've already responded by punching me.

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Anonymous posted on

> http://i3.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/original/000/338/047/3c0.jpg

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Anonymous posted on

Fighting to have your voice heard and taken seriously is part of the nature of the discourse, and believe it or not, everyone involved (even at Columbia) is doing exactly that. I commend you for having the guts to put your opinion out there. Welcome to the struggle.

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Anonymous posted on

I think the end gets to the heart of the matter: "Successful movements are built on inclusion. So is progress. Alienation never solves any issue, and snark rarely does. Pushing discourse forward means having open discussions and building solidarity. "

It's hard to avoid bitterness and snark when one has felt ostracized or rejected, but empathy and respect are definitely more effective in most cases.

Thanks for writing!

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