Letter from the editor: The remedy to broken trust is the benefit of the doubt

The Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

We have to stop with this “ignorant till proven woke” philosophy that is pervasive across college campuses. It’s petty, pompous and unproductive. We have too many important problems to waste time pitting ourselves against one another. Whatever happened to the benefit of the doubt? Whatever happened to generosity?

Here at Occidental, there are big issues of mistrust, exacerbated by an inability to communicate with one another. We demand to be heard, on the condition that we don’t have to listen in return. We shy away from any sort of disagreement, deeming it unproductive and hurtful. We get mad when prejudice is used against us, but never think twice when we make assumptions about other people. We demand dialogue and critique it when it doesn’t exactly meet our expectations, and we don’t offer a vision of what we’d like instead.

We pick figureheads to blame when we’re upset about something rather than putting in the work to understand the root of the problem. We treat groups of people as institutions, naming them the Weekly or the “administration,” to avoid having conversations with human beings, lest they offer us a counterargument that makes us uncomfortable. We assume their stories before we take the time to listen to them.

This is not dialogue. Dialogue requires offering someone the benefit of the doubt, if just momentarily, for them to speak for themselves before we put words in their mouths. It requires a moment of humility before assuming you’re right and they’re wrong.

I do not think that all disagreements require compromise. I do not believe everyone has a good point to make. Rather, I think everyone has a right to make their points themselves before we presume their points for them.

My freshman year, the Weekly covered Apollo night. When we posted the article online, we included a photo of the third place contestant, a woman of color, whom we incorrectly identified in the caption as the winner, who was also a woman of color. Students swiftly took to social media, calling out the Weekly’s “institutional racism.” In reality, the mistake was the result of a miscommunication with our photo and web editors. Our web editor, who is necessarily removed from the editorial process, assumed the woman in the photo was the winner because she was the focus of the article. We took the blame for a simple newsroom mistake — but to call that miscommunication racism implies intent and impact that was assumed, not proven.

My sophomore year, a columnist from the LA Times wrote on the nuances of sexual assault on college campuses, specifically to an audience of parents. She interviewed me, impressed with some of my own columns on the topic for the Weekly. We talked about the gray areas of consent, how difficult and awkward it can be to navigate as a college freshman, just beginning to explore sexuality as well as learning to drink. Students took to social media to call me a rape apologist. I felt confused, horrified, as people posted Facebook statuses publicly announcing their assumption that I had never been sexually assaulted; I grew frustrated as people refused to acknowledge the validity of a young person’s confusion with intoxication and consent.

Two weeks ago, when I was revising the Weekly’s survey for the one-year anniversary of the occupation, I asked a few people whose opinions I value to look it over and give me feedback. One of these people was a woman of color whom I deeply respect and can always trust to think critically and speak honestly. Within days I heard this exchange spun into “the Weekly asking one student to speak on behalf of all black people.”

I’m all about calling out ignorance and racism, but at a certain point, why are we making enemies of each other out of miscommunication and mistrust without seeking truth first?

Sure, the Weekly is technically an institution. But we’re also your classmates and friends. We’re too close to you to be criticized through social media or the grapevine. We open up our application process to the entire campus at the beginning of every semester. We ask for tips at the end of every article; we have op-eds and letters to the editor in every issue. Sometimes we literally beg for your input. We cannot trust everyone, and sometimes there are reasons to be frustrated. But at the Weekly, there are obvious and accessible ways to make your voice heard. The frustrated students and community members on our campus have influence and sway just by virtue of being at Occidental — why not take advantage of that?

Despite my periodic frustrations with some of the more unfounded or trivial complaints, against the Weekly or others on campus, they’ve taught me so much. They’ve reminded me of my obligation to always self-reflect and think critically about my actions and their influence, as well as never to disregard or take for granted the inherent privilege my voice will always carry. They’ve taught me when to shut up. They’ve taught me humility. They’ve taught me how to lead compassionately and resolutely, and to instill in my staff and the “institution” of the Weekly the capacity to love criticism; how to listen and learn from it rather than take offense.

In our demands to liberalize our institutions, in our propensity to work against rather than with people to create change, we come up illiberal and hypocritical. We isolate our allies and create enemies with whom we probably actually share similar goals. This is especially true at Occidental. There are a lot of schools to attend or work at. We chose this one for a reason. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt.