In our tolerant and liberal society, we place great emphasis on the individual and her ability to make free choices. When the state or some other institution imposes one particular moral outlook or range of choices, it is frequently met with resistance. In contrast, the individual is expected to weigh her own circumstances and decide accordingly. This liberty promotes both a more just society and more individual happiness.
The upcoming GU272 referendum is a mandatory fee which, by nature, represents a moral judgement on the responsibility of Georgetown students for the institution’s past. It contradicts that very value of liberty. Students would be compelled to act rather than having the choice to opt in. Regardless of your views on reparative justice, you should vote no on the GU272 referendum. Voting yes would support an unjust imposition of a moral judgement on the entire student body.
Charitable donations to the less fortunate are a good cause. However, each individual should be free to engage with not only the question of her moral obligation but also the method of restitution in her own way. Individual students have the right to account for their own beliefs and to proceed through a complicated and emotionally charged issue in the best way they know how.
Opponents of the referendum have many sincere and thoughtful reasons to stand against the present proposal. The document has been rightly criticized for its vague language and unclear procedures, leaving the board guidelines undefined and program funding at the total discretion of a yet-to-be-created organization. For others, the threat of financial hardship is a pressing concern, regardless of unconfirmed GUSA assurances that financial aid will cover the fee. Most importantly, however, many simply disagree with the moral argument that they, as current students, are in any way obligated to pay for the past sins of the institution.
Some at the recent GU272 town hall, including former Georgetown University Student Association President Juan Martinez (SFS’20), said they would be more than happy to work overtime in order to pay the fee each semester. But the implication was that proponents of the referendum expected — and were even willing to compel — their peers to do the same. Supporters of a charitable fund to benefit the descendants of the 272 are free to work as much and give as much as they please. By voting yes in the referendum, however, these supporters are really voting to deprive others of their freedom to choose, imposing their views of what is good on others. In this way, one person’s justice can become another’s injustice.
Voting no does not preclude other methods of reconciling with the past. A more just solution to the question of reparative justice would leave navigating the morality and personal circumstances to each individual student. For example, an opt-in or opt-out fee each year would be a reasonable way to leave the choice in the hands of the students.
Even better, funding could come from well-publicized, student-organized fund drives that could foster frequent student reflection. Instead of a passive fund collection, students would have the opportunity to engage more meaningfully with the university’s legacy of slavery. Pressuring the university to follow through on the suggestions of the working group, such as erecting a memorial, should also be a continued effort. But the student body should only provide the opportunity for every individual to donate voluntarily, avoiding any compulsion.
While some might argue that imposing collective action is just, true justice respects the autonomy of the individual. Adoption of this proposal, even by a large majority, would be a policy victory of brute force rather than one of measured persuasion.Those who are not convinced by arguments for reparative justice will not be any more accepting after being dragged, kicking and screaming, into submission. In fact, such unjust treatment threatens to ingrain in them a deep sense of bitterness, sowing further division in our community. Rallying the community through thoughtful persuasion to voluntarily donate would better foster unity and sincere support for the cause.
No matter how strongly you feel obliged to donate to the descendants of the GU272, you should vote no to prevent an unjust imposition on your peers. Anything else would be a slap in the face of liberty.
Rizana Tatlock is a freshman in the College. Henry Dai is a freshman in the College.