Mehring: Preaching Beyond the Choir
By Adam Mehring, Staff Columnist
Published on Friday, February 15, 2013
Tensions are high on Dartmouth’s campus. It is a condition that applies very much to our present academic term. But ask any alumnus or peel through the archives of this very paper, and you will find that high tensions have plagued our campus running decades back. Even as recent incidents of racial bias have been (predictably) disregarded by many as isolated occurrences or emergent symptoms of a greater hypersensitive hysteria, they in fact increase a tally of discriminatory actions that have been occurring consistently for years. For Dartmouth, it appears that it is the rule, rather than the exception, that intolerance should rear its ugly head.
This is in spite of the well-meaning community members who work throughout their careers to combat this sort of intolerance — in spite of student and administrative efforts to promote diversity, understanding and inclusion. A Dartmouth student could surely spend equivalent time in lecture on the one hand, and attending community-building workshops, candlelit vigils and campus climate discussions on the other.
This is great — talking through our issues is a wonderful way to remediate them. There is ample evidence to demonstrate the positive influence of structured facilitation in promoting greater understanding. So why do the same stories recur here ad infinitum — an “ism” invoked for every abuse, a phobic display for every personal assault?
I will take one thing for granted: that there are certain institutions on our campus that condone, or at least fail to condemn, this sort of behavior. Exclusionary social establishments inevitably promote a culture of exclusion. When acceptance into a group requires the possession of specific traits or adoption of certain norms, those who do not possess such traits or align to such norms are ostracized for their differences. Even if the aberrant can form groups of their own that ascribe to their own behaviors and norms, fragmentation occurs, from the top down, to create a stratified campus: a campus in which empathy and intersectionality are constrained.
This is, of course, a vastly simplified description of a complex social interaction; nor do I mean to assert a unilateral campus dynamic. But understanding is hard to come by when we exclude from our spheres of interaction those whose experiences meaningfully differ from our own. Selfishness likewise predominates: we reserve interest for what affects us and our kindred, with less consideration for the greater community. So any consortium responding to an act of bias — intent on sparking dialogue and effecting change — invariably attracts affinities and allies of the slighted party, but few others.
Thus, the very efforts aimed at addressing prejudice on our campus fail to include the very perpetrators of that prejudice. Conversations following a bias incident end up taking place between those who are least likely to incite bias. We preach to the choir, until the next incident requires yet another echo-chambered caucus.
Little will change until understanding is promoted and embraced universally, yet significant portions of our campus remain ambivalent toward the idea of comprehensive transformation. How do we create lasting, meaningful change?
You can punish: impose harsher penalties, revoke privileges for displays of intolerance or make those privileges contingent on participation in efforts to address campus issues. But penalties and threats can contribute to greater disdain. They are also already in place — compulsory facilitations for members of Greek organizations and the specter of being called to Parkhurst among them. They are not working.
If the goal is to educate and promote understanding, why not transplant efforts into a site of education — into a classroom? A required course that addresses issues of social justice and facilitates conversation between members from different social spheres would provide all Dartmouth students, including the ones presently unserved, with an understanding of the intricacies of oppression and promote a more accepting environment for all. If we must demonstrate certain abilities before receiving a diploma, whether through academic distributives, physical education classes or even a swim across a pool, we surely should have to demonstrate an ability to understand and empathize with other human beings. Such a requirement would not only improve the Dartmouth community, but would enable postgraduate success in our increasingly globalized, interconnected world.