Silence in Memphis: Rethinking Group Polarization and its Impact on Society by Hannah Shelton @ The University of Memphis
On March 19, 2018, I walked into the University Center expecting the status quo. Instead, I found students from across the university protesting a racial slur that had been said during a charity event. While it is typically thought mass mobilization can lead to democratic erosion, this silent protest demonstrates group polarization’s ability to open up civil discourse and espouse democratic values.
Typically, Greek Life events do not cause commotion. However, this particular charity event turned sour when a fraternity member, despite being told otherwise, sang a song that contained a racial remark.
To capitalize on the matter, the fraternity member harassed an attendee after she told the him the song was offensive.
Additionally, there was no university representative in attendance. An anonymous student explained a Student Leadership member should have been present since the event was on campus. This only added to the tension.
In response to the event’s obvious mishandling, Greek Life students organized a silent protest. Their plan was to bring attention to the situation and have other fellow students realize racial remarks, in any setting, are not appropriate and should not be utilized.
While there have been several little protests on campus, I have never seen one this expansive. There were hundreds of students packed into the University Center. What was even more impressive was how rapidly the information spread and how promptly the students organized themselves.
Yet, this event goes much deeper than just students expressing their discontent. Instead, it demonstrates how group polarization does not always indicate negative effects.
Group polarization often has a negative connotation. It is seen as a cause of democratic erosion since it often leads to extremism. As Cass Sunstein describes in his work Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, group members usually take a more extreme position than individuals (2009).
Sunstein continues to claim that these extremes create homogenous groups, which in turn causes riffs in society (2009). For a government to be considered democratic, people must have the freedom to join a political group without being coerced coerced (Dahl, 1972).
It is true group polarization occurred during the silent protest. Collegiate students rallied around a common grievance and organized a silent protest. If the students acted alone, the protest would not have occurred.
Also, the protest was in response to a deep-seated societal issue. According to Sunstein, this factors into polarization (2009).
Yet, this demonstration did not lead to less diversity like Sunstein claims (2009). Instead, the protest included students from several different organizations.
Additionally, it did not cause a riff amongst students. Instead, it brought attention to something that plagues Memphis, but is often glossed over.
Therefore, it cannot be assumed group polarization and mass mobilization lead to violence, which indicates democratic erosion. Instead, the silent protest exemplifies how mass mobilization can produce positive outcomes.
The silent demonstration caught the media’s attention. The local news station, WMC Action News 5, covered the story. This allowed the public to gain an understanding of the event. (http://www.wmcactionnews5.com/story/37756887/students-protest-after-fraternity-uses-racial-slur-at-campus-event).
The fraternity member who sang the racial slur was suspended. Additionally, the University and the fraternity launched an investigation. This led to a series of Twitter posts, including several from the fraternity. The organization stated, “Use of offensive and hurtful language does not align with values… The chapter is fully cooperating with the university” (http://www.wmcactionnews5.com/story/37756887/students-protest-after-fraternity-uses-racial-slur-at-campus-event).
Additionally, the event evoked a response from the NAACP, who stated, “There needs to be more inclusivity training amongst the University. Additionally, this should be a learning experience for not only Greek Life, but the University as a whole.” (http://www.wmcactionnews5.com/story/37756887/students-protest-after-fraternity-uses-racial-slur-at-campus-event).
Therefore, it cannot be assumed group polarization has a negative impact on society. While it can lead to violence and dismiss civil discourse, it can also highlight societal issues that are often overlooked. In this case, group polarization allowed students to convey their concerns and bring to light racial issues that still plague Memphis.
Photo by Social Justice Rangers, “Racial.”