The First Reform

Much like the rhetoric of communism, fascism, and so many other “isms” throughout history, angry sound bytes are designed to provoke an argument, not end one.

Much like the rhetoric of communism, fascism, and so many other “isms” throughout history, angry sound bytes are designed to provoke an argument, not end one.

Recently, there has been a quite a lot of talk about – well – talk on the Dartmouth campus. In the days since the Freedom Budget protests, “discourse” has emerged as the subject of choice for local savants determined to foment change. One can hardly wait in line for Collis pasta or pretend to write a paper on First Floor Berry without hearing impassioned pleas for improved dialogue. The topic has permeated editorial pages and has become the primary feature of President Hanlon’s newly inaugurated “Moving Dartmouth Forward” initiative. It seems that everyone – whether they be progressive or conservative, moderate or apathetic – has decided that “discourse” is the preferred solution to Dartmouth’s most pressing problems and has made it the centerpiece of their campaigns for a better campus.

This is an encouraging development, to be sure. Catchphrases like “end the Greek system!” and “racism!” can only get Dartmouth so far. Much like the rhetoric of communism, fascism, and so many other “isms” throughout history, angry sound bytes are designed to provoke an argument, not end one. They can get people talking, but are ill suited at encouraging people to listen. For that reason, they are incapable of producing a healthy exchange of ideas, and as we have seen all too frequently in Hanover, wind up becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

We are glad that substantive discourse is back in vogue and that many seem sincere in their efforts to engage with the ideas of others. Our optimism, however, does have its limits. Amid the many calls for a more expansive and accessible dialogue, we cannot help but notice that few people have stopped to ask the hard questions about what the desired conversation will look like. To the best of our knowledge, no one has tried to define what makes some types of discourse more “inclusive” than others. Nor has anyone explained what is required to make our discussions “productive” and “positive.” Instead, there seems to be the idealistic assumption that when people get together, their words will erode any and all differences and the path forward will become self-evident.

This mode of thinking strikes us as rather naïve given the current state of affairs on campus. And one need not look any further than the events of Wednesday evening to see why. At President Hanlon’s “Moving Dartmouth Forward” summit, Trustee Laurel Richie ‘81 gave a keynote address in which she called on those in attendance to make Dartmouth “a safer and more inclusive place” by solving the problems of binge drinking, sexual misconduct, and social exclusion. So far so good. But, after acknowledging that such a process of change and improvement would be gradual, she concluded her remarks with a rather striking exhortation: the most important thing was for the leaders in the room “to bridge the gap” with those who rose their voices in protest earlier this month and involve them in the conversations ahead.

While there is nothing wrong with the substance of this statement (after all, excluding individuals from an “inclusive discourse” is rather hypocritical), a problem can be found in the imagery provided by the “bridge” analogy. In literature, “bridges” are most often used to span enormous voids and link two fundamentally unalike things artificially. Rarely are they necessary where natural means of connection and communication already exist. At risk of sounding pedantic, we believe that these implications can easily be applied to the evolution of Dartmouth’s “discourse” in recent weeks and months.

Judging by the radicalism of the recent Freedom Budget demonstration, conversation at the College has suffered from the absence of a shared intellectual and social foundation around the Green. Words like “ableism” and “imperialism” have a very different meaning for those who occupied President Hanlon’s office than they do for the typical history or English major. And a lack of shared community experiences has made opportunities for overcoming that divide increasingly difficult to come by. For this reason, the recent protests embody an evolving trend at the College whereby “the Dartmouth experience” has balkanized into a variety of tracts based on what one studies, how one communicates, and who one chooses to associate with.

These divisions present very real impediments to the cultivation of “positive and productive discourse” at Dartmouth. The German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas, once wrote that the only opinions that “[had been] translated from the realm of personal values into that of reasonable justification” could be safely included in the pursuit of the common good. What Dartmouth lacks now is such a way to translate the thoughts of its various constituencies into the public sphere. Without a shared academic and social foundation, priorities and arguments become lodged within their various siloes and campus-wide communication becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

It is for this reason that if Dartmouth is serious about seeking solutions in discourse, it needs to first examine how such a discourse might be possible. To President Hanlon’s list of “binge drinking, sexual misconduct, and social exclusion,” we would add the compartmentalization of the campus as one of the school’s most pressing problems and would encourage change agents to think long and hard about the best way to promote honest conversation. Only after Dartmouth finds a better platform for discourse will solutions to these other issues become possible.