“Dumb Ass Social Justice”

In late October, I sent a survey to the carpediem mailing list asking if people would be open to having Meatless Mondays at Olin. Part of one of the responses in particular has stuck with me:

“…Fuck being “progressive”. Fuck being “good for the planet”. I went to this school because I thought we were above dumb ass social justice greenpeace peta levels of bullshit. Apparently not.”
– Anonymous, 10/28/13 at 1:02 am

Quite frankly, this scares me.

Before I talk about the big issue, I’ll explain the context here. The survey had two questions: “Would you be open to having Meatless Mondays at Olin?” with a yes/no/maybe checkbox, and “Why?” The survey received a flurry of responses, and many of the “no” responses were very emotional. The passage above was the ending to a message expressing concern that it was not Olin’s place to impose restrictions on diet; most of the message was about not wanting to be forced to eat vegetarian. The message was likely drafted and submitted very hastily, the person responding was likely rash and angry, thus exaggerating his or her language. Still, if anything, that means we are seeing something very close to the actual thought process that went on in this person’s head. The idea someone can in their purest thoughts be so insulting of efforts to help other people is what scares me so much.

I don’t want to dwell on the idea of Meatless Mondays itself, but due to the concern voiced in varying degrees of “enthusiasm,” I’d like to put out a brief response. The idea is not to force people to eat a type of diet they don’t want to, but rather to reduce the amount of meat, the class of foods with the highest environmental impact, eaten by 14.3%. Eating food without meat for one day is not inherently “vegetarian.” Meatless Mondays isn’t trying to force you to be a vegetarian, though I would personally encourage you to consider it.

The fact that this person says they went to Olin because they thought that Olin was above “dumb ass social justice” is surprising to me. I was sold on the idea that Olin taught a purpose for engineering. We engineer to help other people. Encouraging students to work for the benefit of the world outside of themselves is even written into our founding documents. Olin’s mission statement is “Olin College prepares students to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world.” Olin’s founding precepts states that “The College also should nurture a student’s appreciation of the role of philanthropy in America.” A presentation by Olin about Olin stated that one of the needs for a new engineering education paradigm was having “Global Context and Ethical Reasoning needed for societal problems.”

So what’s the problem here? I’d argue that it’s not about rudeness in anonymous survey responses (though yes, there was plenty of that too). I’d say it’s the idea that someone, even in their rash emotional response, is not just dismissive of, but antagonistic towards efforts to improve the world. Somehow, they believe that Olin shares in those tendencies, and that’s what scares me.

What should we do? Do we work to incorporate more “help the world” into our projects? My classic example for this is PoE, we could just build something cool, or we could build something cool that also makes the world a better place. Should we consider what we’re branding ourselves as to potential students to avoid the misalignment in expectations? SERV and GrOW have both had engagement issues over the past few years. Should we work to create a culture-shift towards Olin students being more motivated by the world/people outside of themselves and have them (learn to) act upon that motivation?

If you believe in social justice or being good for the planet, I encourage you to Do Something.

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