[Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author]
I write this in the hope that we can make Plenary a place for productive discourse where we address Haverford’s problems without vilifying different groups and engaging in inflammatory rhetoric.
I’ve noticed at recent plenaries a recurring pattern of rhetoric which I believe to be divisive and inflammatory. This problem often arises in connection to issues involving minority groups on campus and issues pertaining to athletics. While the grievances are often valid and the anger often justified, mutual trust, concern, and respect is absent from the resulting rhetoric. The Preamble of the Honor Code emphasizes respectful conversation and mindful consideration of the different perspectives in our community. If we ignore and disrespect the opinions of others, we fail to uphold the central tenet of our code.
The most recent example of harmful rhetoric was the response to the Ford Form statement at the end of this last Plenary. While I agree with the points made by Lourdes and Daisy, I feel as though the way in which they were presented was ill-advised and even counterproductive. To be clear, the anonymous submitter was in the wrong. Removing safe spaces and sanctions against microaggressions would be harmful to many communities at Haverford, and would not encourage productive discourse. However, the response to the submission, rather than explaining why this is the case and why safe spaces are important, simply vilified and ridiculed the submitter and his views, condemning them as ignorant and selfish. I would venture to say that most people at Haverford recognize the value of safe spaces; nevertheless, it is clear that there are those who don’t, and the opportunity to explain the importance of safe spaces to over two-thirds of Haverford’s student body, even briefly, is one that should not be passed up. Demonstrations of ignorance like this Ford Form submission are natural opportunities for issues like these to be explained to the Haverford student body while mollifying concerns over the Code. These explanations should not be viewed as a burden, but rather as a natural part of Plenary. The existence of the Social Code makes Plenary a space where social issues can and should be discussed. Each of us has a responsibility to talk about problems we see in the community that the Code could fix (in relation to resolutions or amendments), and Plenary is the designated space for this discussion. Rather than a burden, the education is a consequence of argument and counter-argument over questions and propositions. Even if it seems as though a person is not open to being educated or has an extensive misunderstanding of the Code, we must still respond respectfully and make some effort to explain why we disagree. Otherwise we are compromising our own community values (trust, concern, and respect), as well as risking alienating people rather than helping them towards a better understanding and becoming a more informed (and consequently better) member of the Haverford community.
This instance of harmful rhetoric is part of a larger pattern. At last year’s Special Plenary, the resolution removing language explicitly forbidding discrimination against political ideologies devolved into people one-upping each other with anecdotes of how they had suffered for their identities and beliefs. There was no conversation, simply blanket assertions that being discriminated against for gender identity or race was far worse than being discriminated against for political beliefs, or that the two were equal. This discourse was unproductive, as all cogent arguments were lost in the chaos. In fact, it exacerbated the problem, since the rhetoric used was highly emotional and often contained an accusatory tone, both of which serve to alienate listeners and make productive discourse much more difficult. Passionate testimonies, while they can be effective, often elicit visceral emotional responses in the listeners. This can be useful in demonstrating a point, but it can also distract from logical arguments and escalate delicate situations into passionate arguments. The more a group of people becomes emotionally invested in an argument, the more difficult it becomes to compromise or even have a productive discussion. Particularly when the tone of a speaker is angry or accusatory, those who perceive the anger or accusation as directed at them are likely to retreat into defense and denial. This creates divisions and often ends with two groups talking past each other, too entrenched in their own arguments to consider the arguments of the other side. Keeping emotions a little more in check while emphasizing our unity as Haverfordians is a better path towards progressing as a community in our discourse. Passionate testimonies and arguments are important, but the passion should be about a goal not about the argument itself. In this instance, our goal was to “protect all students and the safety of the community of the whole” (as stated in the Special Plenary minutes). It would have sufficed to say, then, that discrimination for any reason is wrong and shouldn’t be accepted in our community. Not all discrimination is equivalent, in large part due to power dynamics which have been present historically and still exist today. However, that does not excuse us from trying to eliminate discrimination in its entirety. Additional language recognizing nuances in discrimination could be added to the social code rather than removing explicit protections for any marginalized groups on campus. Rather than proposing language which elaborated on the nuances of discrimination while still recognizing that all forms are “devoid of respect”, the issue became perceived as a binary: either political discrimination is prohibited in the same way as other types, or it is not prohibited as strongly. The rhetoric used played a large role in this perception of the issue, despite some efforts to maintain strong protections for every marginalized group while recognizing the existing differences.
One of the best instances of constructive, inclusive rhetoric also came during Special Plenary, when Jesse Friedson asked the student body to engage in conversation with the trans community and offered to answer questions. His rhetoric recognized the problem while encouraging respectful discussion and offering a resource for discussion. We need more of this type of rhetoric at Plenary. I know I personally, and I believe most of us at Haverford, want to understand what we can do better. Jesse’s statement came during the discussion of a resolution declaring student support for increasing the availability of gender neutral bathrooms on campus (an issue which is very important to the trans community). Before the resolution was presented, we lost quorum as at midnight the Honor Code had just been ratified and nearly everyone decided to abandon the proceedings in favor of sleep. Had those of us who left or were about to leave been aware of the importance of gender neutral bathrooms, I’m confident we would have stayed and passed the resolution post-haste. It is shameful and unfortunate that we were ignorant of the resolution’s urgency. The outrage which followed the loss of quorum was justified, but counterproductive and actively harmful. Maligning those who left, to the extent that people were actively discouraged from coming up to the con mic and white cis athletes were explicitly called out, only deepens the divide and exacerbates the damage already done by the incident. Jesse’s approach is what will help us learn how to form a stronger, better community for everyone. Vilifying, insulting, and ostracizing groups of people or other communities when they make mistakes drives the community apart and makes it harder for us to improve, but inviting people into conversation brings us together in pursuit of a common aim.
None of this is to say that the anger and passion in any of these instances was unjustified. To the contrary, I believe that in each instance the speakers had every right to be angry. My point is simply that the way that passion and anger is expressed, so often directed at people at Haverford (even at specific individuals, like at this most recent Plenary), is divisive, counterproductive, and harmful to the community as a whole. I have faith that most Haverford students, myself included, want to listen and learn about what we are doing wrong, and make this a better community for everyone. I’m sorry that I am still unaware of many problems, and that those people who are in minority groups so often feel burdened with the responsibility of teaching me. But Plenary should be a place where we all gather to try to improve Haverford, so it is a place to make us aware of our shortcomings in a way that recognizes our eagerness to improve, not in a way that assumes our apathy towards underrepresented communities. In summary, I hope we can endeavour to be respectful in all of our conversations, particularly those surrounding sensitive issues, and especially at official events like Plenary.
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