Recently I had the privilege of attending a lecture on campus by Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Arun, who has devoted his life to teaching peace through non-violence, spoke of the mistake many people make when they consider the path of non-violence.
Non-violence, he said, is not a “strategy” nor is it a “weapon of convenience” to be used by the weak against the politically powerful. It is a total way of life, a mode of being, a quality of relationship, and an attitude of spirit. It is more than just rejecting physical violence toward other beings. It is about rooting out the far more insidious passive violence we perpetrate against others that causes anger, shame, resentment, emotional pain, and ultimately retaliation.
Sitting in that little auditorium listening to Gandhi speak with serene confidence about the power of peace, non-violence, and forgiveness while the campus outside exploded in angry words and demonstrations was almost surreal. For a week the University of Oklahoma was cast into the national spotlight in the worst way.
What some members1 of the SAE Fraternity did on that bus was offensive, puerile, and yes, racist. It mirrored back to us an ugliness that we preferred to think was a part of our past and not alive and well in our present. The chant and behavior of these 19 year olds has been and should be roundly condemned.
But the near hysteria of the national and local response to this distressing event obscures some issues that cannot be dealt with by simply expelling a few errant frat boys. It is easy to condemn others for sins that we ourselves would never be tempted to commit. It prevents us from having to face our own failures.
The mission of a great university should be enlightenment, not just education. From ancient times the university embraced as one of its main concerns the formation of the “good citizen,” a moral being capable of pursuing truth and virtue for himself and his community. It was concerned with the whole person, not just stuffing facts into young brains. Otherwise it is simply an overgrown trade school. It is the place where young men and women often first experience a wider world of different people and ideas.
Tragically, the lesson that the University of Oklahoma has taught these young offenders is that the response to failure and ignorance is not simply punishment, it is banishment, expulsion from a community that has judged them unfit to remain among them. With righteous indignation, angry sound bites, and the glare of television cameras, they and their families have been well and truly shamed.
No chance for atonement was offered. No effort to educate them about the struggles and history of the African American community was attempted. The response of the University was as swift as it was violent. The sentence of the University may play out well in front of the cameras but how it will help any of these young men gain a single ounce of understanding, or empathy is beyond me.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Unless we become the change we wish to see no change will ever take place.”
The sentence handed down by the University to SAE was an abdication of its sacred mission to dispel ignorance with wisdom, admonish with the truth, and shine light in the darkness.
1 “Oklahoma Inquiry Traces Racist Song to National Gathering of Fraternity,” Sigma Alpha Epsilon, University of Oklahoma, in the New York Times (3/27/2015).