At my university’s commencement this spring, actress and activist Alfre Woodard remarked to the students, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, “you’re woke now!” Her tone was at once enthusiastic and sarcastic. I wasn’t sure whether to take this sentiment seriously. On one hand, this was the validation we were all looking for. After four years at a liberal arts college, here was a prolific public figure handing us the metaphorical certificate of wokeness, the ultimate judgment that we are indeed good people, before we received our academic diplomas. But the moment also brought me back to a talk I recently attended on campus by white antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo, author of the book “White Fragility,” who said that despite her extensive research and credentials in social justice, she would never be able to call herself “woke,” because she is a product of a racist system and despite her best efforts to combat that thinking, there will always be work left to do in her lifetime. So as students who have spent a mere four years learning about the world outside our childhood environments, have we really learned all there is to know about social justice?
There’s a running joke that students at Tufts hate nothing more than centrists. Centrists are cowards who refuse to take a stand. Centrists are people-pleasers who will sell out either side just to avoid controversy. Centrists don’t know what they want. These are statements that I held to be true, and still believe to some extent. But after growing up as an impassioned liberal in Arizona and then coming to Tufts only to find that the left extends much further beyond me than I thought it did, I was more confused than ever about where I stood. I was expected by my peers to take a strong stand on pretty much every big issue and defend it ardently, and at times, I felt this was an unrealistic expectation of a barely twenty-something with not more than few political science classes and a heavy dose of hubris under my belt. It seemed like everyone but me had cemented their views and reconciled their contradictions. For someone who has always believed that everything is political, this was unsettling. I didn’t want to be the indecisive centrist.
Still, I grapple with the dilemma that issues of policy are not always black and white. I’m a strong advocate of public schools and an opponent of school choice, but I read recently about the major positive impact on outcomes that school choice and charters have had in the Newark area for students of color from low-income backgrounds. I cannot, in good conscience, invalidate the experience of students who have benefited from such policies. Now, maybe one can argue that if we change the education system fundamentally, eliminate charter schools altogether, and provide robust funding and reforms within the public school system then these same results can apply across all communities and not just exceptional ones. But not everyone can afford to wait around for change, so perhaps intermediate reforms make sense in certain settings. It’s why so many people critique the Democratic Party while still voting for them year after year. Sometimes, you just have to accept the best option presented to you.
Admittedly, I believe that one can work on systemic change and try to alleviate pains within the current system simultaneously. This may seem contradictory, but the reality is that we are all complicit in maintaining the status quo in some way, and we are all hypocrites. Well, maybe not wannabe Ralph Waldo Emerson types who completely isolate themselves from the rest of society. Or monks who live in a truly communal fashion and live off only the bare necessities. But the rest of us? Those of us reading blog posts on Medium? We can’t escape the system. We absolutely can and should try to reform it. But it would be, in my view, incredibly arrogant to be so convinced of one’s own correctness (at any age, not just in youth) that we are unwilling to revise our views.
To me, the answer lies in the adage, “strong opinions, loosely held.” We need value systems to guide us forward and to help us answer the moral questions we face on an everyday basis. But we need not cling onto these values so strongly that we tune out everything else. I’m not calling for “bipartisan dialogue,” “civility,” “reaching across the aisle,” or any such platitude that is commonly used as an excuse to silence those who are rightfully angry about injustice. I’m simply saying that we are receiving new information, new data, every single day of our lives, and we should constantly adjust the internal algorithm of our personal values to account for this new information.
I’m not a centrist, but I have much of the left to learn.