November 25, 2014

Sounds of silence

The next steps of activism should encourage participation by the student body at large.

The student body has divided itself along a spectrum concerning issues of race and tolerance. The poles of the spectrum are very visible: On one side are those who wear the mask of online anonymity on Yik Yak and elsewhere, the provocateurs of campus. Further along the spectrum are those who feel that none of this is “a big deal”—those who are here to study, not listen to people’s complaints. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the more progressive faction of campus—activists and those who vocally support them. They are pursuing justice and fighting a fight that I believe is morally right. Even in light of recent events on Facebook, the ideals of the fight still stand.

However, between these two poles lies what I think is most of our campus—those who feel generally uncomfortable, not so much with these issues, but with the lack of reasoned dialogue. And, because of this, they are silent. I am not saying that the activists’ actions are unreasonable—far from it—and what happened yesterday were the actions of one man. But what we have now is hardly dialogue likely to engage the campus as a whole.

Liam Leddy, in a Viewpoints article last week (“(Over)hearing the Other Side ” 11/18/14), did a good job articulating what a reasoned dialogue would look like. Suffice to say, it would resemble something like a Hum class. The phrase, “I see your point, but…” would be used to start a lot of sentences. People would listen more.

So the question becomes: Why is there not reasoned campus-encompassing dialogue? Maybe it’s because of apathy—people not wanting to engage because they simply don’t care—but I think the cause is more nuanced. It seems we lack dialogue because of fear, a fear that leads to silence. There is the fear that stems from discrimination and forces people into silence, but I am not qualified to write about this type of fear because I have not experienced it. Instead, it has been experienced by POC, both on this campus and historically. So I will write about what I know: the type of fear that makes the majority a silent one. It is the fear of being wrong, but not just factually wrong. Rather, much of the silence stems from a fear of being seen as morally wrong.

You might object that the silent majority is morally equivalent to those who think this “isn’t a big deal.” And you’d be right. Those who haven’t spoken up may think the issue is a big deal, but clearly not big enough of a deal to say anything. They might claim that they don’t totally agree with the petition. Or maybe they aren’t fans of the people leading the movement. And you could respond that this is pedantic and wrong. Which it is. It’s focusing on small issues at the expense of a larger cause.

I will readily admit that I did this and was wrong to do so. I would not sign the petition because of its last two clauses (refining the core and new standards for the hiring of faculty). I have since seen that I was wrong and signed it.

But this change happened only because I participated in a reasoned dialogue. I put my views on the chopping block and saw they were wrong. I can’t take the credit for this. It happened because someone calmly told me how I was incorrect, and why. It is possible that someone might change their mind if they silently continue to observe the debate, but it’s much more likely that they’ll only come to understand it once they’ve actively participated. But, given the current environment, they won’t.

Social currency carries a lot of weight at our school. As a result, people do not want to be publicly shamed for being prejudiced, whether or not they actually are. Most of the silent majority is probably unsure what even constitutes prejudice. So they’ll keep their mouths shut on Facebook, in class, and in their own apartments.

People fear this hostile atmosphere. We’ve all seen it. Someone makes a comment on Facebook or an off-handed remark about Halloween costumes, and suddenly three people are yelling in their face. I am not claiming that the Halloween costumes were OK— they perpetuated and trivialized harmful stereotypes—instead I am claiming that yelling in someone’s face isn’t helping the situation. At least it’s not helping anymore, but more on that later.

If they stay silent, they can’t be educated—hopefully the goals of the petition will solve that. I urge other people who have stayed silent to take a risk and take part. But education won’t happen if we label all ignorance immoral.

In fact, I believe that a certain degree of the silent majority’s pedantry can actually service the cause. Recall the Mill you might have read first year: Dissent is important because it helps refine a view. It makes the cause stronger. Our opinions must be “fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed” lest they be “held as a dead dogma, not living truth.”

Yelling in someone’s face isn’t a constructive way to promote dialogue. The administration talks a big game about open dialogue but they promote it as an end, not as a means. Instead, open dialogue is important because it has the potential to get us to what’s right, what’s moral, and what’s in accordance with the truth. But when open dialogue is stifled, so is the pursuit of what’s right. And I think most people in the silent majority see the anger and the yelling, or rather, the rampant use of Caps Lock, as stifling. You would be correct to object that activists deserve to be angry. It’s understandable. They have been silenced now and in the past. Screaming might be the only way to be heard—maybe the only way to open a dialogue is to rattle the institutional cage.

But screaming can be just another form of silence, especially as a conversation wears on. You may be heard, but, unfortunately, many won’t listen. Once the dialogue has been started, the best way to end the silence of the silent majority is to stop screaming and listen to them. That said, the activists are the first people we should listen to; they are the most informed and the first reason we are having this debate. But if we are to understand the anger of the activists, we must also try to understand the silence of a large part of our campus. We should even try to understand why people think that the costumes were “just a joke” or “not a big deal.” This will open dialogue. More importantly, it will lead to education and tolerance, namely what is right.

People have asked me if I really want to publish this—“won’t people jump down your throat?” Some people probably will. I’m not pretending to be brave, though. I’m just trying to further the conversation.

Eric Singerman is a fourth- year in the College majoring in philosophy.