Social dialogue is often pillared by two concerns: commerciality and civic cataclysms. That is to say, we usually reach for the language of diversity and tolerance when we either want to promote something as particularly diverse or tolerant, or when we want to understand, and ultimately extinguish, instances of homogeneity and intolerance. In that sense, we appeal to an ostensibly universal ethos, one in which we feel like if we don’t discuss something wrong in contemporary society, then we are somehow condoning and perpetuating it.
Such is the corner Swarthmore finds itself hustled into.
With the recent and highly public (thanks to the clandestinely omnipresent forces of sardonic sites like “Swassip”) onslaught of both hate speech and sexual misconduct, the administration has felt compelled to address the campus community in a way that highlights not only the College’s legacy of acceptance and collectivity, but also the College’s shortfall in enforcing that legacy.
In an email addressed to students, Dean of Students Liz Braun hoped that “we as a community will offer those members that have been affected our support by doing what [we] do best — pause long enough to reach out to one another, to question uncivil discourse, to demonstrate support and collegiality, and to be particularly attentive in those situations in which civility and sense of community has been compromised.” Her email is just one of several sent to students this past year that express these sentiments, indicated an unceasing trend of uncivil discourse.
But maybe Swarthmore and the administration itself aren’t solely to blame for incidents of victimization. Marketed to prospective students as an open and progressive institution which works its hardest to foster a clear sense of intercultural respect and cooperation, here is where Swarthmore’s social dialogue is pillared by commerciality — the school is advertised according to its commitment to what Dean Braun describes as “civil discourse and an abiding regard for one another across many social, political, religious, ideological, and cultural differences.” In that sense, potential Swatties are attracted to our purported values of tolerance and respect. But the eloquence spun around this sort of discourse is not limited to the admissions goals of the school; it stretches far back to oft-iterated Quaker values.
What happens, then, when someone calls another student a “faggot” at a campus party? Or a confederate flag is proudly waved at Pub Nite? Or the number of sexually assaulted students grows in number? Or graffiti expressing racism and homophobia is plastered on our campus and in the surrounding community?
These are the episodes of hatred and disrespect that violate our collective standards of reason and justice. These are the installments of violence and fear that stain a glossy brochure that boasts understanding and social inclusion.
So how do we begin to reconcile those values we claim to have drawn us to Swarthmore, and the fact that we don’t all uphold them once on campus?
Yes, rapt discussion is a good and logical start. We can continue to hold symposiums (like the upcoming Cultivating a Diverse and Inclusive Community symposium on March 28) and give talks on tolerance. But, like “KONY2012’s” noble yet deficient campaign to bring Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony to justice, any real shift in the reality of the situation cannot simply come from a submissive awareness.
Moreover, these attempts at manifesting our values through discursive means are not actual reactions or responses to those troubling incidents that compromise our community. An email from the administration and a tangential workshop don’t do much, if anything, to resolve deep-seated fractures in the principles we subscribe to and the conduct that compromises those principles.
We also cannot continue to try and achieve that shift in the situation until after the fact. The moment we wait for something awful to happen in order to be prompted to act is the moment we allow it to happen — campus injustices prey on our passivity. And so our diligent participation lies not only in inciting social dialogue, but also acting it in our day-to-day lives at Swarthmore as the crucial complementary step.
We will encounter hate time and time again while off campus, in the “real world.” Our duty, then, is not to shelter ourselves from bigotry — particularly those bigoted attacks on minority groups — but to take advantage of our membership in Swarthmore’s campus community by genuinely engaging ourselves with an identity that puts humanity above all else. This means going beyond social dialogue and taking decisive steps towards doing as we say.