GUEST EDITORIAL: The Elephants on Campus
Belief is not the same as action, and it’s important we consider how to address the gaps between them and work to be better together.
March 6, 2022
Editor’s Note: This piece includes discussion of sexual violence.
What does it mean to truly embody our beliefs? How do we live out the values we claim to hold close to our hearts and minds?
In the past several months, these questions have featured quite prominently in my mind as I prepare to leave college behind me. They’ve come up as I’ve worried about my own future and what a life I’d want to live might look like—what professions I might enter, the people and communities I’d like to surround myself with, and my short and long-term dreams and aspirations. Those considerations are quite personally significant to me, and I am sure most of us experience similar internal dialogues. But my reflections on embodying values have also been stoked by observations I’ve made while navigating my experiences across Vanderbilt’s campus, as I’ve consistently run across contradictory expressions of belief and real-world actions within the student body.
For example, I see peers repost the recent guest editorial on sexual assault to their Instagram stories while refusing to hold their own friends accountable for the same behaviors. I also see peers speak out against social injustice while going to work for organizations that directly produce structural and institutional violence. Contradictions such as these, which pervade our campus environment, are unsettling if not sinister and warrant serious scrutiny.
Consider the treatment of sexual violence on campus. As we all know, this year has seen a proliferation of sexual violence: at this point in the school year, we’ve already received ten security notices about sexual assault and there has been a great deal of justified outrage and concern on campus. That being said, it is still unclear whether our administration has done anything to meaningfully address sexual assault. And if our leaders do attempt to address important issues, they should make the tangible actions they’ve taken abundantly clear to the student body, which they have not.
I will not mince words—our administration’s muted response has not only been embarrassing, it has been deeply harmful to the entire campus community. The administration’s apparent indifference to such a pervasive issue is gross and dangerous.
However, indifference is not just an administrative issue. Most of us claim to care about sexual violence and to want a safer campus. A significant number of us circulated a petition last fall over the repeated dismissal of survivors by the university and reposted quotes and graphics about the prevention of sexual violence.
But our personal choices and behaviors often send the message that sexual violence is not to be taken seriously. Many on this campus do not believe survivors and instead rush to defend the accused or simply ignore claims of sexual harassment or assault. Many look the other way and remain friends with individuals known to be predatory. Many continue to fervently support and participate in IFCPH Greek Life, though the institution is known to contribute to higher rates of sexual violence on college campuses across the country. Many on this campus still choose to attend parties and group activities with known sexual predators and their apologists in their midst.
If we truly care about the safety of our community, if we truly care about supporting survivors, then we must change our personal behavior. We cannot merely say we support survivors and stand against sexual violence, we have to actually make choices that reflect those values. Contradictory behavior is not just tone-deaf, it is traumatizing and significantly harmful to our friends and peers.
Within our student body, it is also common to profess commitment to fighting social injustice coupled with consistent failure to live out those beliefs.
In many of our classes, we spend our time grappling with the sources of inequity and injustice, but as soon as we close our laptops and leave the classroom, it seems as though we swiftly move past the lessons we’ve just been taught.
Perhaps for some, their commitment may only be a way to gain social capital on campus and is not a true reflection of their values; one can only hope that this is not true for the majority. Instead, it seems far more common that students are genuinely passionate about issues and stray away from their values over time, as they become disillusioned or overwhelmed by outside pressures.
Although this presence of cognitive dissonance and complicity on campus is seldom acknowledged publicly, it is frequently decried in more intimate settings. Many are unsettled, as it cannot be denied that there are many issues concerning the student body in which “progressive” values, stemming from beliefs in justice and our common humanity, should guide us to certain courses of action, far different from paths we actually choose.
Consider some of the most sought-after jobs to acquire post-graduation; positions that signify academic success, charisma and business acumen. These positions are often at large institutions: well-known consulting firms, elite investment banks, corporate law firms, private equity firms and leading tech companies. While these pursuits do not comprise the career interests of all Vanderbilt undergraduates, they are certainly the most socially accepted pathways that we are taught to strive for. For the sake of brevity, I’ll evaluate the moral implications of working at just one of these institutions, one which hires a large cohort of Vanderbilt’s “best and brightest” every year and one which I believe is emblematic of the issues contained within all of the most normative pathways: the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
In recent years, McKinsey heavily advised US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, recommending dubious cost-cutting measures at detention centers and other disturbing alterations to immigration processes. The firm aggressively assisted pharmaceutical companies in boosting sales of opioid medications, caring little about the heavily destructive impacts of these drugs. The firm was also involved in a large corruption scandal in South Africa. Additionally, the firm consistently works for many of the world’s largest polluters with no discernible end in sight to this practice. These examples represent just a small portion of the underhanded behavior on which McKinsey’s business model is founded. More broadly, they represent a small portion of the consistently unethical actions taken by a number of leading companies within the consulting industry and other major pathways. I could just as easily have made the same case about Goldman Sachs, Meta (formerly Facebook), or any number of private equity firms.
Those that choose to work for these companies may claim that they are interested in “social impact” and would never take on an assignment they viewed as morally unscrupulous. Whether this is reality or merely to soothe the conscience, it does not matter. To receive paychecks from companies like McKinsey and others of its ilk is to be deeply complicit in behavior that is violent. It is to turn a blind eye to and support practices that scar communities, end lives, and erode democracy.
I am not an absolutist, the truth is that regardless of where we work we could be actively or passively perpetuating harm, perhaps even unknowingly. It is true that many that embark down these paths will stay only briefly at these companies before moving on to other endeavors. Certainly, the career choices of our early twenties do not define who we are or who we will become. And for students from low-income backgrounds, it can be extremely difficult to turn down positions that offer immense financial stability, especially with family pressures to achieve social mobility. But with those considerations in mind, we should still strive to be altruistic in the present, and actively seek out harm reduction.
It is not acceptable to sit on our hands in apathy and pretend that working for firms engaging in deeply negligent behavior is our only choice. There is always a choice and there are endless other opportunities in which one can make a fair income and live well. We have the privilege to explore those opportunities and we should not squander it. If we want to embody a politic in which all people are treated with dignity and respect and in which compassion, equity and justice are valued above all else, and if we want to embody a philosophy in which social justice and human rights matter, then we must consider the ramifications of our imagined careers. We must use our values to guide our decisions, actively choosing community over financial gain.
My objective with this piece is not to claim a false moral high ground. I am guilty of what I’ve described as well. We are all complicit and hypocritical about issues; we are all inconsistent to some degree.
I hope others can continue to push me to be better and to more comprehensively converge my values and practice. But that process can begin internally. My objective is to challenge us all to consider the implications of our willful ignorance and complicity. My objective is for us all to meaningfully reflect on how to actively show all people the care, compassion, and respect that they deserve and to use that reflection to guide our actions.
While recognizing our own privileges and participation and complicity in harmful systems, we can empower one another as we all strive to live out our ideals. We can hold ourselves and each other accountable while sincerely challenging the status quo and striving to live more ethically. Though sometimes we may feel trapped, there will always be room for hope and love and joy. And rather than feeling helpless or compromising our integrity, we ought to consider how we can support one another to pursue the humane and equitable present and future of our dreams.