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Destructive Discourse at Plenary

[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.

I encourage anyone to contact me with any and all comments about this piece: my email is nroland@haverford.edu or you can leave a comment below

[Editor’s note: Additional responses can be sent to hcclerk@gmail.com]

6 Comments

  1. Leah Null Budson March 3, 2019

    Hi Cole–As you acknowledge that the anger voiced in response to actions such as the Ford Form or students leaving prior to the gender neutral bathroom resolution is valid, I think it’s worth considering what sort of criticisms those instigating actions deserve. In particular, I think you could make similar arguments that sending a lengthy, anonymous document that makes anger-inspiring (oppressive, disrespectful, and concern-lacking) assertions, that clearly showed that the writer had not listened to Daisy and Lourdes’s speech, is “unproductive.” Similarly, leaving plenary instead of listening to one’s peers and engaging in dialogue is “unproductive.” In sum, I believe your rhetoric (and societal rhetoric more generally) about what is “unproductive” is disproportionately applied to marginalized individuals responding to oppression, rather than focusing on the ways in which the oppressors are “unproductive.” This is especially worrisome because not responding to things in an emotional way **requires privilege**, and marginalized individuals are more likely to be read as emotional than privileged individuals.

    Lastly, your assertion that “These explanations should not be viewed as a burden, but rather as a natural part of Plenary” ignores the inequity with who is taking on this burden. Sure, if we all had equal amounts of privilege (as was much more true when plenary and the code were instituted), I would be more likely to agree with your statement. However, the fact of the matter is that marginalized students on this campus take on the burden of these explanations frequently and disproportionately, and it should not be their obligation to do so. Because of the inequity in who is taking on this emotional labor, it’s important to acknowledge these acts as “burdens”, so that we can progress towards a place where privileged students learn to educate themselves (which could include going to many events on this campus where people are voluntarily performing emotional labor and providing explanations of these things), rather than ignoring such education and demanding that others labor for them at Plenary.

    Happy to discuss more, my email is Lbudson@haverford.edu.

    • Cole Roland March 3, 2019

      Hey Leah–thank you for your comment! I think I largely agree with what you’re saying, particularly the pieces about how the instigating actions which result in angry responses are also unproductive and lacking respect, and how societal rhetoric often focuses on the errors of marginalized groups while ignoring those of others. This piece was written very specifically about discourse at Haverford’s plenaries, where in my experience over the last couple years the majority of the rhetoric has not been directed at the mistakes of the marginalized groups. For instance, in Daisy and Lourdes’ response to the Ford Form they clearly pointed out the unproductive nature of the statement. This is not something I want to change; rather, I just hope the way in which unproductive statements or actions from non-marginalized groups are corrected can be adjusted.

      I also agree that it is essential privileged students learn to educate themselves. I do not think that Plenary should at all take the place of other events and spaces for learning, or indeed self-reflection and learning. However, these issues do naturally arise at Plenary as part of discussion around resolutions/amendments or as part of the resolutions/amendments themselves. I hope that learning can occur as a natural part of argument and counter-argument; the best way to argue against an inaccurate view is to explain why it is wrong and what the accurate view is.

      I’m interested in a further explanation of why responding to things without being emotional **requires privilege**. I’d like to be clear that I don’t think all emotional testimony is bad or unproductive, and that I recognize the emotional rhetoric I call unproductive is often present on both sides of each argument. Unfortunately, I don’t have a clear understanding of how privilege is required to make a reasoned, respectful statement. If you are comfortable with and willing to explain that to me, it would be much appreciated.

      Sincerely, Cole

      P.S. I’ve responded here rather than emailing privately because I feel this should be an open conversation; if you have views or worries you’re more comfortable sharing over email I am more than happy to use that platform.

      • Anthony Marqusee March 3, 2019

        Hi, thanks Leah and Cole for your responses. I’m not a current student but I’ll chime in. I won’t try to speak to the specifics of the situation since I don’t know them, and defer to those who were there on that. But if general reflections are welcome, I’d like to give it a shot.

        Cole, to first respond to your question about privilege and emotion, I think the idea isn’t that privilege is required to make a reasoned and respectful statement, but rather that it gives the ability to make such a statement in an emotionally neutral way. The difference is important because I think it’s possible to show anger while still being reasoned and respectful (ie not invalidating the other person’s dignity, experiences, etc). And the reason why privilege helps with being emotionally neutral is that if you have been harmed by the issue under discussion, you will be more vulnerable to feeling angry or sad or betrayed by an ignorant statement. For example, if I say “X group is vile trash” you are probably going to be angry regardless. But imagine the statement said about an identity or experience you hold strongly vs one you don’t but someone you love does vs one where you don’t even know someone who does. Intellectually you may disagree for all three cases but your visceral reaction is likely to be different. Yet those people who have been most affected are the most likely to have valuable ideas about the subject. So by discouraging emotional speech, we cut off the opinions that are the most informed.

        However I realize that the above doesn’t address what I see as your very justified feeling of frustration that fewer people will listen and learn when the speech is inflammatory–a feeling that I have often shared. After all, if we have good intentions, and a desire to do no harm and to promote understanding, we will naturally feel frustrated when we see a clear missed opportunity for understanding. But my suggestion is: don’t direct your frustration at the speaker, and instead, use it to motivate yourself to help them reach people. If you are able to listen and hear the person regardless of their emotion, which is a skill I think it’s vital to cultivate, then you can use your understanding to help convey the message to others who aren’t willing to listen to ‘inflammatory’ speech. If you are able to translate the concept to those people, you will have made understanding that much easier. And then, if they say, “well, why didn’t the speaker just say that instead of being so [fill-in-the-blank]?”, you have the chance to explain, “well, when think about an issue where you’ve experienced a lot of harm…” So we can see the situation as an opportunity for us to try to act as allies, rather than putting our frustration on the person who is speaking differently than we believe they ‘should’.

        This may not be a full solution, but perhaps it’s something. I welcome any reactions or responses.

        • Cole Roland March 3, 2019

          Thanks Anthony for this explanation of the relationship between privilege and emotion. I will reiterate that I never intended to discourage emotional rhetoric in itself, though i see how my writing could have been interpreted that way and I apologize. In response to the latter point, unfortunately much of my frustration stems from my own inability to understand immediately/thoroughly the issues which are often addressed using ‘inflammatory’ speech due to my own privilege. I sometimes need more explanation myself, which I don’t have the time to seek before a vote is called, and almost never feel adequate to explain these issues to others. This conversation has, however, very quickly helped me understand some of the reasons why people speak with more passion than I thought appropriate, and I will try to spread that understanding when I can. I love the idea of using these situations to act as allies, and hope that it does not seem as though I had any grievances with the people speaking (only with their speech). At the very least the conversation is in itself valuable.

          Sincerely,
          Cole

  2. Brittany Steele '17 March 3, 2019

    I didn’t care to spend more than 5 minutes googling the topic (cuz I spent so much of my time as a student educating people on this very topic) and I’m sure there are better blog posts or articles out there on the topic but here’s a good starting point for why the emotion vs logic argument is a load of mellarky. Short answer: Privilege gives you emotional distance from an given issue. You can understand it academically or theoretically but it’s not personal. Oppression is like having a nerve that gets rubbed more and more raw with each wound, and after enough wounds, just poking it is enough to cause intense pain.

    https://everydayfeminism.com/2016/03/objectivity-can-be-oppressive/

    • Cole Roland March 3, 2019

      Thank you for this comment; I better understand the meaning of not being emotional requiring privilege. This is something I did not consider enough, and as a result I may have used some diction which distracts from my primary argument. To clarify: I do not want to make the argument that emotion and logic are in opposition, that emotional arguments are not valid or inferior, or even that it is possible to separate emotion from these sensitive issues. The anecdotal testimony of underprivileged/underrepresented groups is essential for others to understand in any small way the issues facing these groups. I simply hope we can change the way these emotional arguments are used and directed. While I recognize that it is impossible to not feel the pain and anger, I do think it is possible to express those feelings in a way that is respectful. Rather than voicing anger and frustration towards Haverfordians who say or do something ignorant or harmful (specifically at Plenary), voicing that anger and frustration at the ignorant/harmful thing that was done or the idea behind it in a way that illustrates the pain it causes could help avoid the creation of divisions among students. That being said, this has given me a lot more to think about and I will continue to try to better understand all the factors at play.

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