Opinion guest column

The issue with preaching kindness: a response to Institute-wide communications

Is MIT capable of real change?

On Aug. 19, President Reif sent out an Institute-wide email calling for a renewed sense of mindfulness and compassion in the MIT community as we approach a new semester. Although this sentiment might seem to mean well, it continues to absolve MIT of its role in deepening the crises of poverty and militarism.

During finals week last semester, my friend and I were assaulted by a homeless man in front of Lobby 7. When he first approached me, my friend stood between us, and in response, the man spat at us and tried to grab me. When we broke free from his hold and crossed Mass. Ave., he voiced racist insults. The MIT Police arrived shortly after to apprehend and handcuff the man and take him to the police station.

In the following days, my friends and I became involved in the drafting of another MIT-wide communication, a message to be sent by Reif in May regarding the incident. The draft of the email also referred to the hostilities which arose among the MIT community as a result of the Israel-Palestine crisis. Members of the community involved in those tensions on campus were intensely frustrated by the draft’s inadequate and feeble manner of addressing the conflict, as it reduced the political crises to another call for more personal kindness. Ultimately, the administration did not send the email. But it shared themes with Reif’s most recent email: change is but a matter of “offer[ing] each other extra patience and compassion” and being mindful of “differences in power, status, culture and education.”

The Institute frequently tells us that advancement is primarily a matter of good intention. We are told that we are the future’s leaders. We are the trailblazers. We are the visionaries. We have a “higher purpose for our talents.” We “can make important contributions in this existential struggle, in time to make a difference.” However, this belief that progress is inevitable as long as we act a bit more “mindfully” is not only inadequate, but also obscures the root issues that MIT has a responsibility to address.

The assault my friend and I experienced was not primarily due to a lack of “decency, integrity, humility, respect, kindness and appreciation.” It was a symptom of poverty, which takes away the opportunity to lead lives of dignity from working people, and gentrification, which produces hostility between elite students and the people who are being pushed out. MIT obscures that it and its students hold a larger role in and responsibility to problems of poverty and gentrification in Cambridge (see MIT’s Kendall Square Initiative). We need to go beyond “deliberat[ing] how we treat each other” and internalize the urgency of our responsibility to address the foundational issues that allow incidents such as this to occur.

On the surface, there seems to be nothing immoral in a call for kindness; what wrong is there in an appeal to treat our neighbors with a bit more compassion, especially in a time of such “hate and brutality in our society”? However, MIT, an institution which is supposed to serve as a beacon of education and ideas for the leadership of American society, has a larger responsibility to address society’s greatest contradictions. These calls towards a more inclusive and mindful environment are disingenuous because they obscure the real causes of crime and the psychological crises of American people, which are poverty and imperialism. Most importantly, they conceal MIT’s role in misleadingly convincing students that they are true agents of change and preventing them from developing a genuine, moral path forward.

We must think critically about the status quo and question MIT’s assumption of inevitable progress. Being a member of the MIT community does not make us the default leaders of the world. If we are serious about our commitment to progress, we must have the courage to go beyond investing in MIT as an agent of change and understand that the institution’s interest in maintaining its power through wealth will always defeat its interest in people. We must wholly engage ourselves as leaders in the struggle for ideological clarity, challenge the ideas of MIT which uphold imperialism, and dispute the assumption that progress inevitably arrives with good intention. As revolutionary activist Grace Lee Boggs said, “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.”