The Disorienting Guide: Disturbed Freshmen Have Occidents

A disorienting experience

A disorienting experience

Autumn in the Upper Valley is a season unequalled for its serenity and vivid coloration. The temperatures shift gently down from summer’s harsh sear into a sweet zone before the avalanche of chilly darkness. Meanwhile, the sun lingers on the gleaming face of Russell Sage, newly-washed in anticipation of fresh inhabitants. It is an almost too-perfect scene in which to kick off one’s collegiate expedition. Yet there are those who would urge severe caution to an incoming class that, charged with Trips-amplified enthusiasm, is perhaps over-vulnerable to the trappings of such an unblemished New England idyll.

For, unbeknownst to all but an elect class of Gnostics, there lurks beneath this mirage of splendor a miasma of untold foulness. To which, thanks to those who dutifully and promptly assembled the Dis-Orientation Guide, we can be immediately alerted, lest we fall prey to what snares await us from all sides.

The trouble with the Dis-Orientation Guide, to be fair, lies not in any of its particular claims or pieces of advice. We may respectfully disagree with a multitude of theories and characterizations of the College set forth within its pages and let the freethinking reader weigh their legitimacy at his or her own discretion. What is objectionable about the Dis-Orientation Guide is how disorienting it is itself.

For, to one totally uninitiated in the rhetoric and posture of contemporary social justice (especially those vibrant realms that flourish on the internet and among the quite young), much of the tone and logical structure of the Dis-Orientation Guide comes across as completely bizarre. This essay will serve as an honest attempt to translate to any student still bamboozled by the Guide what a few of its basic ideas are and, granting it some generous leeway where facts and rationality are concerned, single out the relatively few completely inexcusable features.

(N.B. Space and time do not permit an exhaustive analysis of the entire forty-page document, but there are a few axioms to keep at hand when navigating the document as a whole.)

The first thing to note is that the primary audience of the document is probably not you. The DG is the collaborative product of The Dartmouth Radical and a newer institution called the The Action Collective. The membership of these organization likely shares in the Protean constitution of previous activist groups still prominent in recent memory, such as Occupy Dartmouth, RealTalk Dartmouth and the architects of The Freedom Budget. While the stated objectives and make-up of these organizations have altered slightly with time and circumstance, a non-negligible characteristic common to all is the blatant lack of any sincere attempt to actually change anyone’s mind.

The DG launches in its first pages with a preambulatory declaration that the document exists to “challenge you as a person and as a Dartmouth student.”

What follows in the document, of course, betrays the booming strain of inauthenticity in such a declaration. Except in the most threadbare sense of the verb “challenge,” nothing in the document has the capacity to provoke free, critical thought. The best evidence for this comes in the early section “Classic Comebacks,” presumably a primer for those unaccustomed to dealing with awkward circumstances and ignorant comments in a way that is effective. What you might expect from this section are reasoned, ideology-bridging replies that, while by no means guaranteed to instantly reverse an interlocutor’s socio-political mentality, might provoke him or her to walk away from the exchange with a new perspective and an inclination to ponder the issue at greater depth, maybe to one day light upon more empathetic views.

But what you do find in “Classic Comebacks” is nothing like that, and has no such effect. For example, in response to a statement like “I’m Latino/Black/LGBTW/Asian/Native and I am not offended by ______” readers are encouraged to fire back with an exhortation that the defector “decolonize [his or her] mind.”

Or, in reply to the comment from a white person that he or she experiences racism: “please tell them that they got the question wrong, because they clearly don’t know the definition of racism.”

Or, in answering “I’m not racist. My sorority sister / frat bro / room mate / lab partner is Black”, the DG suggests that you state, “That is literally the reason why you’re racist….”

Now, it’s not that these are innocuous and don’t warrant a critical response. Take the first case: certainly, there is good reason for each of us to reflect on why we might not experience some act or entity as oppressive while many others do, and entertain the possibility that we may be cognitively tempered to tolerate an injustice in the interest of those in power.

Likewise, we might initially balk at the apparently outright falsehood that white people cannot experience racism, especially when a dictionary is consulted. Yet some reflection and research on the matter ought to reveal that when people say “reverse racism isn’t real” they mean something more like “racism, when directed at white Americans in the dictionary-definition sense, because it is neither structural nor powerful, is basically negligible,” or, as is more often the case, that in “reverse racism is not real,” there is an implied subversion and substitution of the generic definition of racism with a definition that has power and structure built into (e.g. racism = power + privilege). The statement appears incoherent with Merriam-Webster, but that’s the point.

And finally, we might also realize that simply having a black friend hardly frees us from the capacity to be racist, and that the insistence that it does only crystallizes such a problematic attitude.

But one truly struggles to envision a single realistic scenario in which the phrase “decolonize your mind” comes across as anything less than shockingly arrogant, patronizing and, most tragically, alienating. Springing upon someone with that sort of rhetorical tactic will end conversations, not start them. The same goes for the sudden introduction of new definitions without context or explanation, or in the “literally the reason” case, some confounding non sequitur.

Equally destructive to productive engagement are titles like “F*** Your White Tears.” While they contain legitimate pleas to readers to cease to be “overly apologetic to the white structures that oppress,” those claims are substantiated with second and third-hand accounts of racists incidents that stink of fiction and embellishment. Even worse, the equation of the Blood and Crips party of 13X (an event of inexcusable ignorance and bigotry) with a performance by DJ Gangsterish, whose name was publicly explained as rooted in the music popular during the early American twentieth century, an era noted for the its romanticized and predominantly white gang activity. A simple check with Google could have abolished such ill-founded ill-will, but even the most remote standard of rigor is clearly no priority when being on the right side of an issue matters more than being right.

The most deplorable hypocrisy of the DG is a cartoon on the sixteenth page, a popular meme of Batman interrupting Robin with a slap across the face. In this rendering, Robin is beginning to say “….Reading The Dartmouth Review…” while Batman shouts “Drop that s***! That’s my doormat!” As is starkly evident from other sections touched on, the tone and pose of the DG can be summarized easily as “Do not let anyone tell you how to think. Let us tell you how to think instead.”

By no means does The Dartmouth Review advocate that any student, new or old, abstain from reading the Dis-Orientation Guide— or anything, for that matter. There is something immortally praiseworthy about standing up for what you believe in and we applaud anyone who takes the time to do so responsibly. There is, however, a vicious violation of the agency and freedom of mind to which any Dartmouth student is entitled by the repeated implications that they cannot think for themselves and that they are already victims of invisible forces the second they step foot on campus.

The majority of the Dis-Orientation Guide is both helpful and excellent, especially the sections concerning trans-phobia, how to succeed as a minority in STEM disciplines, good professors (although entire departments are excluded) and campus jobs. The DG’s virtues, however, are a poor apology for its vices. While the intentions of a few of its authors are indeed highly suspect on counts of arrogance and narcissism, it is important to keep in mind that when it comes to making the world a better place, intentions — good or bad — matter very little. What matters is the effect that such a publication actually has on culture. The final effect of the DG, much like its predecessors in campus activism, is to disorient and harden the prejudice of the majority of its readers, and to nurture paranoia and factionalism in the rest.