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Because we care

| Thursday, March 21, 2019

Over spring break, a neighbor asked me what section of the newspaper I write for. When I answered that I was a Viewpoint columnist, she smiled but looked wary. “Ah,” she said. “You’re part of the complainers. You guys are always angry with the world.”

Throughout the mere four months I’ve been writing, this has not been an uncommon reaction. At the beginning of the semester, a visiting high schooler read one of my columns and emailed me because he was excited about its optimism. I often think back on the end of his message: “Too often, I find that the opinion section in our paper talks about why ____ is unfair or why _____ needs to be changed. What we really need is more [positive] editorials.” Of all my friends, I am usually the least cynical, the most blindly optimistic, so his message should be right up my alley, but this condemnation of critique struck a chord with me, and not just because I’m loyal to Viewpoint. I’ve found that in the past few years, a new narrative has arisen that brands criticism as synonymous with hate. This demonization of activism holds us back as a society.

When Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeled for the first time during the national anthem, many Americans spoke out in disgust. To quote The Observer’s former columnist Eddie Damstra, people worried that America was “setting a very dangerous precedent if we allow reckless demonstration.” Somewhere in recent history, people determined that protesting or speaking out is “reckless,” completely motivated toward disorder. Demonstrations have become associated with a complete lack of respect toward the subject in question, but this could not be more wrong.

The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. If we didn’t care about America would we waste our time making signs to draw attention to immigration laws? If we didn’t care about America would we spend an afternoon calling our representatives to let them know we take issue with the way gun control is being handled? If we didn’t care about America would we bother trying to make it a more inclusive place for people of all religions? If Kaepernick didn’t care about America would he risk his career drawing attention to an error for improvement? The rhetoric that equates speaking up with tearing down is ridiculous. It is because we love our country that we care to make it better. It is because we love our country that we are willing to endure the backlash we will receive from people who disagree with us. It is because we love our country that we recognize it is not operating at its best and because we love our country that we know it can. 

Every few weeks my seminar professor gives us feedback on our performance in class. Sometimes it can seem harsh, but I realize that the criticism hardest to hear is often the most important. It provides a much needed reality check. My professor does not compile this critique because he’s evil or has nothing better to do; he does so because he realizes it would be a disservice to let us remain stagnant. It would be a disservice to allow us, full of potential, full of opportunity for growth, to stay at the status quo. The notion that calling for change is disrespectful misses the point of change. We change things to improve them.

People can feel opposed to “reckless demonstration” because it represents a movement that upturns the sanctity of tradition, but I find this to be a non-issue. I love tradition as much as the next person — probably more so, as my weary family will attest — but tradition is meant to uphold and cherish what makes something special. Tradition is meant to provide an opportunity to celebrate greatness, not shackle us to mediocrity. We as human beings have the wonderful capacity for growth. To be dynamic, evolving individuals that can change their mind and improve.

Our nation even from its birth has been rooted in upturning traditions and creating better alternatives. The tradition, up until 1967, dictated that people of color couldn’t drink from the same water fountain as white people. The tradition, up until 1920, dictated that women couldn’t vote. Times have changed. There is no shame in laws changing as well.

New Zealand suffered a heartbreaking, unthinkable tragedy this past week at the hands of gun violence. In response, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has vowed to change gun laws. The country’s situation changed and thus its policies reflect that. Does the prime minister hate New Zealand? Does she lack respect for her country’s customs? No. Instead, she realizes that just because something is does not mean it ought to be. As she explains, “reforms … make our community safer.”

In his column discussing the Kaepernick kneeling, Damstra explains that he finds the kneeling disrespectful because “we should all feel compelled to stand during the national anthem, not as a proclamation of American perfection but out of a dual sense of gratitude and readiness to make positive change.” Though I admire his openness for improvement, his statement begs the question: How can we know to make change if we keep doing the same thing?  It’s no different than resolving an issue with a friend who is oblivious to an inconsiderate habit. She isn’t a mind reader. You have to tell her what’s bothering you so something can fix the problem.

And therein lies the real reason for protests, for activism, for Viewpoint columns. If we keep standing, how can people know that something needs to be fixed? If we keep trucking along, not making ripples, how will people realize there is injustice? If Viewpoint columnists keep writing about why Kevin is the best Jonas brother, how will the Notre Dame community understand we need to take active steps to improve our diversity?

I challenge the idea that challenging an idea makes me a pessimist. I think criticism is the highest form of optimism. It means I look at the world we have now and I see a future where it can be even better.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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