A school where dialogue is so much a buzzword

Our campus has a problem with having opinions. Specifically, we seem not to understand how to deal with viewpoints different from our own.

I recently saw a napkin letter addressed to me on the Sharples message board, about an article in last week’s edition of the Phoenix, a factual, but tongue-in-cheek food diary of my Sharples experiences. It read,

“Dear Z.L. Zhou,

You don’t know how lucky you have it, Let [sic] Aranark come in here and feed you some bull Shit [sic] out of a can. At least now you get scratch made food made by people who give a fuck … Ungrateful prick

Love, a concerned citizen”

I am not writing this op-ed to address Concerned Citizen’s claims, whatever they might be; I am writing because this message shows a disturbing lack of understanding about how to conduct dialogue in a way that affords others basic human respect.

I’m not saying that this hostility is comparable to the hostility faced by the organizers of the Spring of Our Discontent or the Black student protests of 1969, but I do feel that this hostility to opinion comes from the same place. Certainly, I’ve received a lot more compliments than Hope Brinn, and I’ve never been called a thundercunt, like Joyce Wu has been. However, even this small-scale, personal example is evidence of an inability to engage in constructive dialogue.

What exactly did Concerned Citizen hope to accomplish by posting their note on the Sharples board? If they were attempting to engage me in dialogue about the state of Sharples’ food, I would say that this was entirely ineffective. Even if the point of my food journal had been to insult Sharples and/or Sharples workers, by posting their rebuttal on this board, Concerned Citizen reached very few people — I didn’t even know their note existed until a friend happened to see it and sent me a photo. Had Concerned Citizen written to the Phoenix, or the DG, or even the Independent, they could have easily reached many more people.

If they were attempting to change my mind in particular, I fail to understand how this note might have accomplished that, since it offered no new evidence to make me believe in Sharples’ greatness — the nonpublic, anonymous nature of the note also made it impossible for me to explain how I, in fact, do enjoy Sharples, and I love eating their potatoes to the exclusion of almost everything else. I was unable to even ask what they meant by “You don’t know how lucky you have it” — although I suspect I do know how lucky I am, I can’t really be sure.

Finally, what exactly was so offensive about reviewing Sharples, even jokingly? Frankly, I don’t see the objection.

What Concerned Citizen did is nothing out of the ordinary for how we conduct our disagreements at Swat:

I feel completely unqualified to talk about Spring 1969 — for that, I’d direct you to Allison Shultes’ three-page “Phoenix Supplements” floating around campus or any members of last semester’s Black Liberation 1969 class — but I believe time has shown how the Black activists both did nothing wrong and wanted nothing inappropriate. I also believe that close examination of both the faculty and general student response shows how much everyone wanted to invalidate the activists’ actions, calling the protest “unnecessary” because there already existed some plan of action — never mind how distantly that plan related to activist demands.

The reception that the activists of spring 2013 got was unconscionably uncivil. They were called radicals and many — all? — of them were personally attacked in vile ways. But for what, really? I would challenge anyone to explain how holding a referendum is radical in any meaningfully negative sense of the word. And although nothing was ultimately accomplished other than discussion, this past year, Wesleyan College ordered the gender integration of its frats, showing that our peer institutions have been considering the same issues we have. Will students look back in some forty-odd years and see us again, being reactionarily hostile?

Again, I don’t want to equate my experiences with those of the activists, but I think a thread holds: it seems insane how — for a school that purportedly champions civil responsibility though conscientiousness and understanding — we are constantly misunderstanding each other’s points, denying their experiences, personally attacking them, and not allowing them the space or ability to speak out in clarification. We are unreasonably quick to take offense to things that require none — it’s almost as if each difference of opinion is like an Abomination unto Our Holy Body.

We should try to approach differences of opinion mindfully and respectfully. Hypothetically, by this point, we’ve all developed the ability to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. For us to truly be what we tell ourselves we are — a group of young, talented individuals out to change the world for the better — we should remember that this ability starts developing at seven to nine months of age and use it.


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