When the Social Justice Mob Came for Me

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra

My name is Jordan Gould, and I’m a junior at Vanderbilt University in the School of Education, majoring in human and organizational development. My passion is to understand other people and how they interact on a macro and micro level.

Throughout my life, I’ve always felt like an outsider.

My family is Jewish and middle-income, from Miami, Florida. Because my parents valued my education, they encouraged me to attend a private high school. I was only able to do this by applying for and receiving financial aid. On the other hand, most of my high school friends were from wealthy families who could afford the tuition. We all took the same classes, but there were differences in our lifestyles. When they went on skiing and island vacations, my family stayed home. My friends went to a nice dinner; I couldn’t afford it. They went out to Starbucks, and I stayed on campus. Still, we all got into top colleges and went off in different directions.

Sure, Vanderbilt is the #14 school in the country. But the reason I chose Vandy was The Princeton Review said it had the happiest students in the country. They also offered me a full scholarship.

This was my big opportunity to thrive and fit in. I came to the school as a Pell Grant recipient. But I also had two jobs and worked 40 hours a week in addition to my 15-hour course load. I worked hard in my classes, but I worked harder on financial inclusivity initiatives to help other low-income students stretch their dollar a little further.

Sixty-six percent of the students here are like me; they have the grades, but they can’t afford the tuition. So I joined the student government’s Economic Inclusivity Committee to help low-income and first-generation students.

For instance, I helped persuade the school to stop charging for laundry in the dorms. Vandy owned the washing machines; why not let students spend their financial aid money on things they really need, like food. My junior year, I was appointed to chair the committee, and I still hold that position.

My other economic inclusivity initiatives included the winter break housing assistance program to house and feed students during the pandemic, free campus parking for COVID-19 testing, a refrigerator rental service that creates jobs and funds scholarships for grad school prep and tests, the student financial resource guide, student healthcare reimbursement, textbook donation drives, wifi hotspot assistance, and discounted Lyft rides to the airport, to name a few.

College has taught me to have empathy for people from different backgrounds. We share our life experiences with one another to help us grow, and I’ve built authentic relationships with people from many different cultural backgrounds.

Even though I’m not from a wealthy family, I realize I do have privilege. And I use my privilege to help underserved members of our community. Not in platitudes, but in action.

In my free time, I volunteer at Dismas Half-Way House to teach basic computer and resume skills. And in Nashville this past summer, in solidarity with my friends of color, we protested the loss of Black lives at the hands of police violence.

Vandy student government was the first place I had been surrounded by people who understood my experience. It was the first time in my life I felt comfortable enough to share a huge part of who I am. And for the first time, I fit in.

By my Junior year, I had built a reputation for getting things done. Several people in student government encouraged me to run for student president. I quickly received 250 petitions and qualified to be on the ballot.

On the first day of public campaigns, everything changed. The student paper posted an article with my picture that detailed my fraternity involvement. Because most of my service during COVID-19 was virtual, few students at Vandy knew anything about me. They knew I was a junior and of my work for financial inclusivity, but they had no reason to know I was white, Jewish, and in a fraternity.

Suddenly I started to get tweets and group messages where people told me to go to hell, that I was a white supremacist and a racist confederate. My senior advisor, a woman of color, was asked why she supported a Colonizer.

The other candidates’ supporters tore down our posters and ripped my head off the pictures, a sinister warning of what was to come. My campaign was called the white supremacist campaign. False social media posts circulated that my fraternity had parties with confederate flags and chanted that the south would rise again. One message said, “White men are the absolute worst!” Soon after, the posts got even more terrifying — “Hitler got something right!” and “he should get dragged for it!” I began to fear for my safety. Why was this happening?

I felt hopeless. It was a level of fear I couldn’t even process. Everything I had worked for was destroyed, and so was my reputation. I felt like I could never come back from this.

In the real world of politics, when one side uses strong speech, the other side follows it up with more speech. But this isn’t real-world politics. This is student service, governed by clear rules developed by my university. It is well-known that twenty-year-old college students are not fully-formed adults, and thus, my institution set protective rules for us. These rules are also there to cultivate a safe space so students can model collegiality and civility. Vandy’s campaign rules prohibit negative campaigning and ban any remark or attack about a candidate’s personal character. Candidates are held responsible for the actions of their supporters and, when there is a violation, the rules require a formal apology.

Despite these clear rules meant to engender civic discourse, the university did nothing when the other candidates' social media attacks rained down on me. Even the student deputy election commissioner, who was supposed to be impartial and enforce the rules, joined the opposition and participated in the vitriolic shaming and blaming. She violated the very rules she was supposed to enforce.

Things snowballed out of control and would not stop. I was terrified and anxious. The attacks were so false and virulent that I began to question my grasp on reality and my sense of self. The opposing campaign was never disciplined; there was absolutely no oversight by the university. In the end, I took the advice of my faculty advisor and dropped out of the election race for my physical safety and mental health. The other candidates were elected, unopposed, despite their repeated disregard for the election rules.

As I start to metabolize and integrate this harrowing experience, I hope to ally with my peers and the broader community to show the nuanced face of modern hatred. I challenge my fellow students to consider how social justice is being weaponized to do the exact opposite of social justice; false narratives cement dangerous, hurtful stereotypes. When the social justice mob came for me, I was forced into an unsafe space where no one could see my suffering.

What happened was wrong and unjust. And it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure this never happens again to anyone. Instead of calling out for public humiliation and shaming, let’s follow the wisdom of Professor Loretta J. Ross, who advocates “calling in instead of calling out.” Calling in allows us to build understanding with others and offer them a seat at the table in the hopes of creating authentic connections.

Let’s turn the page. A word to the Vandy student government president-elect: You would be surprised to learn how aligned our interests are. I invite you to work with me as I renew my commitment to chair the student government Economic Inclusivity Committee. The pursuit of social justice takes hard work. Let’s meet this challenge together.

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