Op-Ed: Reasonable Debate

Tasha Lewis '12 and Jes Downing '12 reveal their Dark Marks
Tasha Lewis '12 and Jes Downing '12 reveal their Dark Marks

In light of the results of the recent Greek life referendum, where “No” votes beat “Yes” on every issue except “Do you support admitting students of all genders to sororities and fraternities,” we as a college should seriously reflect on the ridiculous campaigning that led up to the vote. I am strongly of the opinion that the chalkings did nothing to further the cause of the referendum, and actually alienated moderate voters as well as mobilized the Greek support.

I voted “Yes” on every item on the referendum, but I can’t respect the chalkings, no matter how much I care about the issues they expressed. I felt like a line was crossed in appealing directly to prospective students with lines like “Welcome to Swarthmore, home of my RAPIST,” written right next to “Host 4 Ride the Tide” on Parrish circle. There are times when appealing to the public is a good idea, but this was not one of them.

The threat of this brand of sensational tour-focused chalking becoming used as an avenue for campus discussion is unpleasant to me. I see all the chalking, scrubbing, and re-chalking being done on the path to Trotter and it looks silly. It is even more uncivil than the Daily Gazette comment boards, since there at least you are guaranteed that your comment won’t be erased or scribbled over.

I don’t mean that there should be a rule against chalking for the sake of prospective students — in fact, I think presenting prospective students with ongoing issues on campus is the best way to engage them and convey an accurate view of Swarthmore life. I also think that used effectively, chalking can be a subversive and serious (or even hilarious) way to raise awareness about an issue. But these chalkings had none of the content, power, or discipline necessary to be an effective media campaign. They must be owned and followed up with more substantial content if they are to sum up to anything. Right now they are a lazy excuse for “conversation-starting.”

For example, one chalking said, “At Swat you have to hide the bad stuff from tour groups.” And another: “Women are not welcome here.” How are women “not welcome” here? These are insanely serious accusations that the campus should, must, and even want to take seriously, but there is no one to contact. One is left with the sense that a vague, angry spirit is haunting Swarthmore, without any person or group attached to it.

Constructive conversations about divisive issues are incredibly difficult to start, in general, but even harder out of these tirades. The most conversations that they end up starting are meta-discussions about life at Swarthmore, about how we have become jaded to this sort of “awareness-raising,” about how bad we feel for the tour guides, and about how much it sucks to be a student who hasn’t been here long enough to learn the vocabulary to deconstruct and talk about these issues. Seniors, especially, are saddened that these controversies mar their last weeks here.

Swat Vote Yes, a group unaffiliated with the chalkings, posted less graphic, but similarly sensational messages on flyers around campus. For example, one reads: “The ‘solutions’ to these problems proposed by DU, Phi Psi, and Theta will be ineffective. They will only multiply bureaucracy, decrease transparency, and give greek organizations more special treatment.” How is that the case? Are you sure rejecting a compromise attempt is the right course of action? I’m not disagreeing, I just have no idea what the author is referring to, and I’m not sure that these posters were the result of a well-meditated political strategy so much as an impulsive late-night in McCabe. I’m not about to vote just because a poster said something to me in loud red and black text, and I’m not pleased that a random coterie of students branded this referendum with their custom designed logo and names. I visited the SwatVoteYes Twitter, which is linked to on the posters, and it presented no additional information.

If anything, the chalkings rallied up the supporters of Greek life, since the referendum is suddenly allied with an image of Swarthmore as a bully who is willing to go beyond the limits of civil conversation, and use peer and public pressure to squeeze them out of existence.

I heard from one person who was somewhat in support of the chalkings that they served to bring viewpoints typically quarantined to the Daily Gazette comment boards to real life. She had heard a group of thirty students standing in front of the chalkings in front of McCabe, talking about the issues they discussed. This is the ideal, of course, and I do a little heel click whenever I see it happen. But we have to curate these spaces to make that happen.

Sam Zhang ’14

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