The Importance of Respect

by Dan Nelson | 10/23/98 5:00am

Events during the past week or so have reminded me of some of the great strengths of the Dartmouth community, as well as of some painful problems that persist in this and other communities. Last Thursday, a couple hundred students, joined by some faculty and staff of the College as well as some local residents, marched by candlelight from the front of Dartmouth Hall to the Roth Center.

That group mourned and deplored the murders of Mathew Shepard and James Byrd. Speakers at the gathering affirmed a connection between the concerns and values of our community and the tragic events in the communities where these two men died because of apparent hatred for who they were. They also affirmed a connection with one another and a commitment not to remain silent in the face of other forms of bigotry when they appear here.

And then last weekend, the College also celebated Homecoming, a wonderful occasion for alumni to reaffirm their ties to the College and their sense of place, an opportunity at the bonfire for the College community to welcome the surrounding community to share in the celebration, a focus for unity and belonging among the first-year class and a celebration of the friendship we can find here.

It was also the setting for honoring 25 years of excellence in women's intercollegiate athletics and for recognizing the accomplishments and contributions of our current athletes, men and women. It was a time to honor the memory and influence of a longtime football coach Frank Hershey, who died too young, and to welcome Adam Dansiger '00 back to campus for his first visit since his nearly fatal auto accident a year ago.

But the weekend was also the occasion for too many people to take too many risks with alcohol, for intoxicated individuals to physically assault College security officers trying to maintain order and safety at the bonfire, and for a group of students to push and trample others while running around the fire.

Also disturbing were the reports at the previous night's vigil of the heckling of Native American students earlier in the month as they marched to raise awareness about why they view Columbus Day as no cause for celebration. And it was alarming to hear reports that a student who wasn't marching, but who stood up for those who were, was punched and shoved for challenging a heckler.

I was particulary sad and frustrated to hear about, and later to see, a t-shirt sold by some students in connection with Homecoming. It's design was a picture of a Yale bulldog engaged in oral sex with the so-called "Dartmouth Indian." Almost more disconcerting was the occasional observation that people shouldn't be offended, because the designers, sellers and wearers of the shirts didn't mean any harm and only wanted to promote school spirit.

When people are killed in other communities because of hatred and bigotry by people who apparently viewed them as something less than human, small wonder that people in this community are alarmed by circumstances in which they are treated with something less than the respect to which every member of this community is equally entitled. The t-shirt is so outrageously and blatantly offensive, it isn't sufficient to say there was no intention to harm or offend. Everyone here should know and act differently.

Occasions for celebrating the positive parts of life in this community should also be times for challenging those features of our life together that run so counter to our best values and purposes.

We owe our individual and collective support to those who have been made to feel vulnerable because of events both on and off campus. We owe thanks and respect to those members of our community who challenge and remind us to be better than we sometimes are, to be the community we aspire to be.