Collective responsibility

An essay by a philosophy student.

I’ve always been very interested in collective responsibility. I spent my days last summer reading about transformational justice, both as a response to mass incarceration as well as to (sexual) abuse.  I was hoping that that in some of my philosophy courses we would use history and theories to grapple with current social problems that would require collective action. I was hoping on more collaborative thinking in our group discussions. I love philosophy, theory and history but it was strange and painful to go through all of that and only barely discuss issues like; climate change, sexual violence, discrimination.                                                               

I almost didn’t enrol in the master program of philosophy  this semester. After the events surrounding Sanda Dia came to light this summer, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of the KU Leuven. Sanda reminds me so much of my little brother, seeing Sanda’s picture, was like seeing my brother. They both struggle with things that I can never fully understand. I’ve seen my brother allow racist jokes (about him) by his friends. We’ve had many conversations trying to balance being a part of a group and belonging, while not encouraging racist behaviour. Both being aware that him ‘being cool with it’ might further encourage racist behaviour towards other people of colour. At the same time I know how exhausting it is to live your life fighting. I admire his ability to go with the flow and carefully choose the moments that are worth fighting. Beyond that I was a victim of sexual violence within the KUL. I was raped on my first night as a student in my room at the student housing. I remember shaking my head the next day, trying to shake it off. I wasn’t able to deal with what had happened immediately, I knew that this person would only be living there for one more year in a separate building and that I would be able to largely avoid him. So I did and I survived that year. But after that he kept on showing up in my building scaring me every time. When I decided to speak to someone in charge of the student housing about it, they said that he had always been bothering girls, but that they never thought he’d go that far. I said that I didn’t feel strong enough to file a complaint, but that all I really wanted was for him to stay away. I asked if they could let him know that I had told them, that they believed me and that he wasn’t welcome to visit anymore. They said they couldn’t do anything. I moved, I had to at this point. Seeing how people like my rapist and the murderers of Sanda are able to fully be a part of KU Leuven and finish their studies and move about more freely than me and my brother makes me not want to be a part of it at all. Even now at the end of the first semester I feel like I’m still one foot in one foot out.                                                                       

When I read Durkheim I was painfully aware of how much individuals are in need of a group identity and group projects. I can recognize this in society. Through my earlier reading on transformational justice, but also climate change and  feminism. I can see how some of our most urgent and prevalent problems can only be solved in a group, eventually changing the consciousness of larger groups. But also, through these earlier readings, I’m painfully aware that also within these groups, that are trying to grapple with big societal issues and seeking for big societal changes, there are always people that get left behind. A very clear example of this are women of colour in feminism. I think that specifically for me, being the cross point of so many identities and a carrier of so many uncomfortable truths in our society, belonging to a group will always be difficult.                                                                                                                             

I wish we’d discussed issues of intersectionality in our courses at the university. I wish that professors spoke more on people not being innocent but us being responsible for that person not being innocent, sooner. I would’ve like there to have been more space to grapple with this. It would’ve been a great learning opportunity to collectively talk about how and why we  are responsible for people not being innocent. We could’ve further explored specific instances where there is a need for collective action. I understand the joy of getting stuck in a philosophical problem and trying to find examples that are far outside our reality to make our brain make sense of this. I think there was a bit of space for that in some course and I loved it. I understand the need to understand what came before us and how we are a product of that. I always like learning about why we are how we are today and wonder at how the course of history brought us here. I think there is a lot of insight to be gained from historical investigations of ideas. At the same time, I’m firmly rooted in the present and thoroughly heartbroken and overwhelmed by the work that still needs to be done. Work to achieve a society where we can marvel at everyone’s wonders and where people aren’t used as tools or scapegoats. I was hoping that I could do some of that work with my fellow students and professors. At the end of our studies. I have a lot of material to work with and more historical insight on the problem of collective responsibility. But when it comes to the issues that require collective action today, I’m still left to grapple with them on my own.

UNDIVIDED for KU Leuven

UNDIVIDED is a student-faculty diversity initiative at KU Leuven. For a more inclusive university. Contact us at UNDIVIDED@kuleuven.be or on our social media.

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