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Our Place in “Discourse on Discourse”

[Note: This editorial was written by the Clerk editorial board’s Fall 2018 members]

Dean of Student Engagement and Leadership Initiatives Mike Elias contacted the Clerk last semester on behalf of President Kim Benston to participate in a committee called “Discourse on Discourse.” This committee included four other groups: the Bi-College News, Haverford College Democrats, Haverford College Republicans, and the Haverford College Freethinkers. The committee was planned in partnership with the Students’ Council Co-Presidents, who are also included in the group.

The original plans for the committee came from a recognition by both the administration and the Students’ Council that our ability as a community to meaningfully engage in conversation around important and political topics has reached an impasse. One example of this was this fall’s plenary, where students passed an amendment to the event’s agenda which eliminated almost all planned discussion. While we recognize that for many students the decision to vote “yes” on this amendment was based in the belief that the Plenary environment was not conducive to real, serious conversation, it also seemed many members of the community voted “yes” out of apathy, lack of energy, and a desire to return to homework.  The community was not willing to engage with each other to seriously address topics pressing to the needs of the community, leaving some students frustrated with the the state of public discourse at Haverford and the lack of respect given to the voice of all members of the community, and others skeptical of Plenary’s legitimacy as a space of true community discussion.

Following the events of Fall Plenary, administrators and student groups involved in the Discourse on Discourse initiative gathered to discuss how to address the standstill. The idea behind “Discourse on Discourse” is to take a step back and ask the question about the barriers barring us from even starting conversations about our community.  To begin, this committee will seek to examine and discuss particular political conventions, beliefs, and words that are thrown around but lack definition. What does the word “democrat” even mean? What does “republican” mean? These words themselves trigger certain associations and ideas, not all of which are true. The committee seeks to compose events around topics like this to clarify the very grounds of conversation, to clear the air, and to allow us to pierce the veil that is muddying our perception of discourse and meaningful conversation.  Even the word “discourse” evokes visceral reactions, both for and against.

The central question tasked to this committee is this: how can we have conversations about topics that hold value in our community in a way that brings people into serious communication and trustful dialogue, rather than stoking enmity and encouraging further division? The question is central to our responsibility to each other.  As a community, we have at our core the central tenets of “trust, concern, and respect.” The conversations this committee hopes to lead aim at facilitating dialogue hinged on those very ideals. In addition, the committee aims to initiate conversations in various forms – from videos to reading groups to guest speakers – so that students can enter these conversations in different ways.

A prudent question arises from what we have said above: if that is the aim of this committee, why are there only certain political groups involved? We at the Clerk see serious issues with the fact that affinity groups aren’t currently represented on this committee. While we acknowledge that the committee’s goal is to specifically engage in topics surrounding political discourse, we believe that any conversation about politics cannot just be limited to political groups and news organizations. Affinity group should have a say in this committee.

Despite this major concern, the Clerk has decided to associate ourselves with this committee. It should be noted that the Discourse Committee aims to support other groups who want to host related programming. In fact, the Committee has funding available to other groups who want to plan events related to this topic, so that other groups can take part in shaping this conversation. As noted in the campus-wide email sent by the Discourse Committee, “The focus of our efforts is to start the conversation; nor should we be the primary source of programming on this topic. The Discourse project will be successful as more students purpose events to contribute to the conversation.”

In addition, we ultimately concluded that our job as journalists is not simply reporting on and covering current events.  Journalism is also the art of bringing to light things which have previously gone unnoticed, the art of uncovering that which underlies our common modes of thought and submitting those things to the specter of community criticism.  Journalism requires that we be willing to take the things we hold to be true and initiate conversation around it. It is not enough to simply talk about what we take to be true; rather, it is ultimately important that we find a way to examine and constructively criticize the underpinnings of those truths such that they can operate smoothly in the context of our community.  

We at the Clerk take that to be the goal of what we do, the ultimate aim towards which we strive.  We do not wish to only begin conversation —we wish to be at the forefront of its fruits. Our duty to the community is not merely instrumentally informative. We sense that it is something much deeper and more important, and that is why we feel obliged to participate in the administration’s initiative.  We view this as an opportunity to glean what we can from what works as a community and to appraise the structures that do not such that our community can surpass boundaries that hold us stagnant.

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