When I read JLash’s email about the decision to put the flag back up, I was relieved. Not because I felt unsafe on campus earlier (I realize I am very privileged to be able to stay in my mod and live in my Div III hole without having to worry about it and I am very glad if as a consequence of the flag being up all the people who felt unsafe feel safer). Also not because the flag held any symbolisms for me. At an ideological level, it really does not matter to me whether we have the flag up or not. I think people have very valid reasons for not wanting the flag up. But I think people also have very valid reasons for wanting the flag to be up. No, the reason I was relieved was because I was exhausted. Not just of all the unwanted media attention and the countless facebook posts but also of the general political environment at Hampshire. An exhaustion that has been building up for a while now. Mingled with this exhaustion was a fear of how this environment was going to affect the future of the school. We had a drop in our enrollments after last Spring, which has had serious financial consequences for the school (since so much of its budget comes from tuition). And all this negative media attention surrounding the “flag controversy” could potentially lead to a further drop in enrollments. But what concerns me is not just the drop in the number of people enrolling but also the kinds of students that Hampshire was going to attract or not attract because of all this attention. The kinds of people who feel like they can belong at Hampshire.
Even before the flag controversy, even before Spring 2016, Hampshire has had a reputation for being a politically charged school. A school that gives a lot of importance to activism. A school that cares passionately about social justice. And this reputation is not unfounded. It is true. We do care. However, there is a stereotype that follows this reputation that affects not just the way the outside world looks at Hampshire, but also the way people within the community look at it. The stereotype that there is a set of ideals that everyone in the community holds or gives equal importance to and an agreement about the best way to achieve these. The stereotype that there is one “Hampshire way of thinking” – not that every individual at Hampshire thinks this way, but rather that Hampshire as a community does. Like any stereotype, there is a certain truth to this. The loudest and the most expressive groups on campus largely think this way. But like any stereotype, it is not completely true. There are a lot people on campus who don’t perfectly fit this “Hampshire way of thinking”. It doesn’t mean that they don’t care about others. It doesn’t mean that they might not fundamentally agree with where people are coming from, but they might not agree with the specifics. They might not have the same degree of conviction. Or they might agree about the ideals, but disagree about the way to go about achieving them. But this doesn’t make these people inherently bad or inherently “unhampshire”. A successful community isn’t where everyone thinks the same way – that is never possible. It is one where people are willing to ask questions, willing to listen to questions, willing to really listen to what the other person has to say without first assuming the worst intentions. It is one where people are able to bounce ideas off each other, challenge each other and grow together. However the environment at Hampshire doesn’t always allow for that. There are a lot of times when people who hold these different “unhampshire” views, don’t feel comfortable speaking up or asking questions. People feel shut down. Now I am not saying that its just environment’s ‘fault’ (if we can call it that) that people are feeling shut down. Like in any problem, there are many sides to it. But the environment definitely plays a role. But when people keep feeling shut down for a long time, they are going to latch on to the first thing that makes them feel heard even if they don’t agree with nuances of the argument it is making. They are going to latch onto it without necessarily thinking critically about what is being said because it is going to feel more validating than anything else around. So in a way, not being able to ask questions, not being able to discuss these “unhampshire” views can make people hold on to these beliefs even more strongly (and maybe sometimes even get reinforced by irrational or poor arguments based on anger) – which is counter productive.
In such a tense and divisive environment, when the administration does something that is construed as aligning more directly with this “Hampshire view”, it reinforces the notion (irrespective of whether the administration intended to do this or not) that there is a monolithic view at Hampshire. The view that the entire community values the same things in the same proportions. And this might deter students who hold different views, or don’t hold any fixed views at all, from applying because they feel like they might not fit in with the community or because they think that they are not “hampshire enough”. But while the political environment is definitely an important part of the Hampshire experience, it is not the only reason people might want to apply here. There are a lot of other factors that also make Hampshire unique – like its educational philosophy, narrative evaluations, academic freedom and the student-professor relationships. So reinforcing the view that there is a monolithic ideology at Hampshire can deter people who are maybe perfect fits for Hampshire in other ways, from applying. Thinking back, if all of this was happening four years ago, I am not sure if I would have applied to Hampshire. Which is sad, because while I applied to Hampshire for its academic environment (and I have benefitted a lot from being here), I have also grown as a person from being in an environment where people feel so passionately about political issues. Hampshire can be very powerful in getting people to think critically. But if as an institution we can attract only the people who are mentally and emotionally ready for activism and thinking about issues of social justice, so much of this power would be lost.
So yes, I am relieved. Relieved that maybe putting the flag back up might send out the message that we are willing to engage in discussions and actually allow people to start engaging. Or at least stop reinforcing the belief that there is a monolithic ideology at Hampshire. I am relieved that maybe with the flag back up, we will continue to attract a diverse range of students interested not just in social justice and activism, but also in art, entrepreneurship, film, architecture, theatre and science. We will attract people who value learning from an interdisciplinary environment. Learning from people who are passionate about different things. I know that is one of the main reasons I decided to come here and in my opinion one of Hampshire’s greatest strengths. And I would hate for that to not be a part of Hampshire.