A friend of mine, in her scathing exit review of the College, wrote that apathy is a cancer that is plaguing this campus. Though I don’t agree with it, it’s not difficult to understand what she means or how she came to that conclusion. At first glance, it’s not hard to feel as though everyone has simply given up. People don’t show up for obligations, fail to be outraged at injustices large and small and seem to be more interested in resume boosting or their social lives than actually participating in activities. It’s easy to agree — and tempting. Unfortunately, this thinking ignores the reality of varied passions and diverse interests, each student prioritizing different ideas, concepts, and causes. My friend’s conclusion divides the Jewell community into groups of “us” and “them,” those who are passionate and those who are apathetic; worse, it proposes no way out of the hole it presents.
Anyone who has spent time on the Hill knows that it’s easy to be this divisive. We divide each other up every day, into categories ever smaller and smaller. We become letters and banners, T-shirts and mailing lists, no longer people with lives but parts of a Venn diagram, ever overlapping, each of us blind to all except the circles nearest to us. This blindness makes us see apathy where it simply isn’t; it removes realities that don’t mesh with our own.
We seem to do this without realizing it and lose sight of the individuals who make up each of this campus’ groups; we forget that each and every name on Stalkernet and in the infinite pages of the matriculation blanks belongs to a person with a unique life and story to tell. I like to pretend that I am not guilty of this divisive thinking—that I can see beyond the Venn diagram. I pretend that having friends outside my segment of the diagram means I exist above or outside of it, or that it does not exist at all. I am lying to myself. Each and every day, I find myself associating with only those of like mind, accidentally excluding those whose closet doesn’t have the same T-shirts as mine.
I don’t know if it’s possible to set the Venn diagram aside, but I certainly hope that it is. I’ve found that when I drop my pretensions and anxieties to actually speak to someone new, the one thing I don’t find is apathy. Many of my best friends are those outside my segment of the Venn diagram, the people who simply wandered in and became a part of my world. They have struggles I’ve never had. They’ve lived lives I can only partially comprehend. They have shaped my opinions and my reality. And due to the Venn diagram, their sheer otherness, we almost never met.
Through those friends, I’ve learned that everyone, all of us is passionate about something. When we step outside of our usual in-groups, we find powerful and unique new perspectives, people with passions different from our own.
Looking at one another through the Venn diagram’s lens, these passions seem to fade away. In groups, we somehow lose our individuality despite embracing its components. When we come together, we are capable of doing incredible things. We combine our efforts into our shared passions to create—and achieve—higher goals. It’s hard to make the argument that these groups are bad for us—they are the foundation not just of the College culture but of society itself. They make manifest what we could not accomplish on our own, but somehow they also drive us further apart. They chisel the Venn diagram into stone, codify it into law. They lead us to look away from one another and one another’s interests. They shut out those not in the groups; they inherently otherize.
I hope it is clear just from living here that we do not lack passion on this campus. Almost every day, it seems, a student wins an award, a grant is given, a new project is praised. There is no cancerous disease of apathy. What we lack is neither the drive to become the best versions of ourselves, nor the drive to better those within our social circles. What we lack is the empathy to see past those circles and across divisions like academic class, organisational affiliation, race identity, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, field of study, athletic team—the long, endless, incomprehensible and maddening list of circles on the diagram. We have embraced these divisions and, by extension, the Venn diagram, not because they reflect our unique stories and worldviews, but because they are convenient. They tell us who we should and shouldn’t freely associate with, where the easiest friendships to maintain lie. We have embraced the dichotomy of us and them.
Like it or not, the Venn diagram exists. It exists, and, as it functions now, it is damaging; it limits us in our understanding and compassion for others. It creates the image of apathy and self-service in a community that has an abundance of personal and communal passion, a place where greatness has become almost mundane. Unfortunately, there is little getting rid of it. However, there’s more to the diagram—a solution other than trying to be rid of it. It’s a part that we seemingly always ignore.
The Venn diagram extends beyond the endless divisions and intersections, to a great circle that encompasses us all. It extends to show that we are all students, and as such have commonalities and shared interests and passions, regardless of how aware we are of them. Beyond that, we are all Cardinals—students, staff, faculty, donors, trustees, alumni, members of the extended William Jewell family. Beyond even that, each one of us is a human being, and ultimately our words, our actions and our passions deeply affect our fellow humans. When one student wins a prestigious award or fellowship, each of us is legitimized and aided in our own search for recognition. Staff and faculty can take pride in the work they have done to help their students to see those outcomes, and hopefully reap their own tangible rewards. Donors see their money going to good use and continue to help fund the College and each of our educations. Nothing, no one is truly independent, but we seem to have forgotten that, or simply set it aside.
This relationship goes both ways. I’ve met and spoken to many students who feel disenfranchised with the College for one policy or another. When one person or one policy on this campus does wrong, no matter how seemingly small, it harms each and every one of us. It delegitimizes what we do here; our negativity can sometimes be louder than our positivity, and it limits the greatness of those who are its victim. When it comes time to stand up for these people, against wrongs that have been done, the choir is eerily quiet.
We seem to have stopped recognizing that what negatively impacts one of us affects us all. More importantly, we seem to have stopped seeing the human struggles of those in our community—those who share our very living space—as worthy of our time and our consideration. We’ve stopped paying attention to the real and valid grievances and struggles of those who we don’t know personally. We’ve succumbed to the dichotomy: “us” versus “them.”
This dichotomy is the real cancer that plagues this campus. Although we have many things to be proud of, we let those things cloud our compassion, our empathy for others. We delegitimize and ignore problems large and small because they have no direct harm on our own in-groups; we disregard the indirect harms because they are so easily ignored.
Our passions make us strong, make us proud, make us great. They unite us in a constant struggle to improve ourselves and one another. But in that process, we cannot allow ourselves to become divided and numb to the struggles of other Cardinals, other humans, because they are not the same as our own. We as a community have weaknesses and faults. They damage us all, and it’s time to address them—and we can only do that together, as one all-encompassing circle in a Venn diagram made of many.
I’m ready to step back from the diagram and see the larger picture, with its unique, human stories and diversity. I want to know people I’ve not yet met, or met and inadvertently cast aside. I want to hear new voices, listen to new ideas, discover new experiences. I want to find that when things are going right, we all rejoice, and when things are going wrong, we all stand up and say things need to change.
With that comes the great burden of differing opinions and worldviews, sometimes impossible to reconcile. There may not always be closure; there may not always be resolution. But we must at least have a conversation. We must speak and, more importantly, we must listen. It may not be pleasant at first, but it will be rewarding in the end.
I hope you’ll all join me to see it through, because it’s not something I can do on my own.
A previous version of this Letter to the Editor was published with a typo that has since been corrected.