Verbum Ultimum: Reacting with Respect

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 5/7/15 7:49pm

On May 2, a group of students demonstrated outside Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity’s Pigstick party and Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority’s Derby event. Many have questioned the choice of the parties as a protest venue, and some have suggested that the demonstrators’ delivery, including the use of profanity and shouting, undermined their message. These are not the questions that should dominate our discussion. If the impulse on this campus is to hold demonstrators to standards of decorum, then perhaps we should first consider what standards we should uphold when we respond to a protest.

At the very least, when students take action to have their voices heard, we owe it to them, as their peers, to listen. Listening does not require one to fully agree with their message or believe their behavior is ideal. Listening simply requires us to respectfully engage with the message.

Yet the track record of student reactions to protest indicates that we often fall short in this regard. After the April 2013 Dimensions protest, which took place in the Class of 1953 Commons during the show for prospective students, there was a widespread belief that student demonstrators had selected an inappropriate venue. These criticisms crowded out engagement with the protest’s substance — racism, sexism, classism, sexual assault and homophobia. In response to the April 2014 “Freedom Budget” sit-in, which addressed many of the aforementioned themes, students again focused on venue and delivery.

The way the student body views and evaluates protest indicates a failure to listen with respect. Our focus should not be on determining an ideal venue or attitude — protests are not meant to be ideal in the eyes of those witnessing the protest or those being protested. It is not enough to claim to be in agreement with the demonstrators’ message if one chooses instead to focus on the method or location.

For the Alpha Chi protest in particular, some students, many of whom claim to agree with the overall message, have argued that the demonstrators should have engaged Pigstick attendees in a dialogue from the concert stage rather than chant from the parking lot. When students preface their criticisms with blanket statements of agreement, they often sound disingenuous and instead suggest that what they really care about more is palatability.

Such misgivings about method have once again come to the forefront of discussion. We do not deny that some students take offense with the students’ slogans or messages. But this does not warrant ad hominem attacks or a prima facie dismissal of the demonstrators and their message. If we are going to consider any question of method, it would be that this protest was non-violent and did not violate College policies. Violation of College policy was, after all, major evidence to some that the 2013 Dimensions protest was inappropriate. The Pigstick-Derby protest, though it stayed within these bounds, still does not satisfy the requirements of some students for effective protest. We can hardly be shocked, then, by accusations that this campus is complacent or even working to frustrate and dampen the efforts of student demonstrators.

This editorial, of course, cannot ignore the most controversial incident from Saturday afternoon — the video of Student Assembly president-elect Frank Cunningham ’16 confronting a female demonstrator. While we must acknowledge that Cunningham’s campus-wide email referred to his being called a “derogatory name” prior to the incident, we strongly disapprove of his behavior. No student should be treated that way, especially not by the SA president — the individual ostensibly responsible for protecting the rights of every student. When campaigning for SA president and vice president, Cunningham and Julia Dressel ’17 posted to their Facebook page, “When our leaders are passionate about defending students, their voices are heard and their resistance is felt.” While Cunningham’s voice and resistance were certainly heard and felt during the Derby protest, he failed to defend the students he was elected to represent.

We should not respond to protest with interrogation of protest methods and efficacy, verbal and physical intimidation or online threats. We must embrace the free expression of all opinions, in any format. No student is entitled to dictate the terms on which their peers must deliver a message or idea before they will consider it. The liberal arts tradition cherishes dissent and the clash of ideas. When we postpone our willingness to engage with ideas we may find discomforting or offensive until they are made pleasant, we actively undermine that tradition. The reflex to shield ourselves from all challenges to our beliefs — including beliefs of what is appropriate or reasonable — is much more alarming than any protest method.

This editorial reflects the opinions of editor-in-chief Katie McKay, executive editors Jessica Avitabile and Luke McCann and opinion editors Emily Albrecht and Carson Hele.