Statement on the First Day of Classes, Fall 2017

Wednesday, August 23, 2017 | Jeff Olick

Jefferson Statue

The Sociology Department comprises faculty, staff, and students from a wide variety of backgrounds, with a diversity of concerns and interests, and sometimes holding conflicting political views. We sociologists can analyze and debate virtually anything to the limits of evidence and reason. Yet there are some occasions on which there can be no disagreement among decent people. The events of August 11-12 were clearly such an occasion.  Hate-filled individuals, most associated with hate-propagating groups, came to Charlottesville looking for a fight.  And they got it in a variety of forms. We may debate the relative merits of different forms of resistance. Yet there can be no doubt that the views these hate-mongers were expressing are completely unacceptable.  There is just no good way to spin a swastika, no reasoned articulation of white-supremacism, no acceptable homophobic or misogynistic threat.

As both individuals and a community of learning, we must be concerned for our futures: our department’s, our community’s, our university’s, and ultimately our nation’s and the world’s. As department head, I thus say to students, that no matter what your backgrounds or beliefs, we are an open community committed to the values of human freedom and dignity.  I and my colleagues will do our best to help you, as we help ourselves, understand the bewildering forces at play in our world, and we are committed to ensuring your and our own safety as we do so. 

We understand that many in our community are afraid. To this we have no direct answer: some of this fear is indeed justified, given what we saw on the Lawn and in the streets of Charlottesville.  In saying this, it is important to note that this fear is not equally new for everyone.  Some individuals and groups, for a variety of reasons, have been subjected to varieties of violence and denigration both in the present and over the historical long run, and the cumulative pain and disadvantages of this denigration are profound.  It is also true that the University of Virginia—and our department as part of it— bears some responsibility for this history, which in many ways remains un-worked-through, both at the micro and macro levels.  We thus welcome you to join us in conversation—sometimes even heated—as we continue to work to address these issues, the processes that have given rise to them, and how we might work through them.  For indeed, these issues are at the core of the sociological project.  It is why we do what we do, and we hope you will help us do it as well as we are capable.  

There has been some debate in the department, both in the present moment and in the past, over the value of collective statements.  Sometimes such statements need to be overly vague to be acceptable to all; sometimes there is the risk that even a general statement can be coercive when issued without affirmative consent of every individual in the name of a collectivity.  So in issuing this statement on behalf of the department, I affirm once again the value we place on differences of opinion, just as we affirm that our openness to difference has its limits.  Though it wasn’t for the first time, nor will it be for the last time, those limits were crossed as vividly as possible on August 11-12. Let us all show that commitment to knowledge and inquiry and critical thought will prove stronger than these assaults on human dignity.