Drawing the Line

by Dan Rothfarb | 5/29/02 5:00am

When I first came here, I couldn't see myself writing columns for The D. What did I know? I was just a freshman with very little knowledge about Dartmouth, let alone the world at large. And most of that I learned second-hand. But I studied and I grew, and by last spring, I decided that I pretty much knew what the hell I was talking about. Plenty of people think that of themselves, and that is a perfectly fine opinion to have. But as graduation looms closer, and the terrifying reality of the world outside becoming more obvious every day, I am again reminded that I am young, and there are many things I don't yet know. And yet, this realization makes me feel old here at Dartmouth, because it is part of growing up.

That's why I think we're all here in this so-called diverse environment. I used to think that diversity was needed, in as great a quantity as possible, so that we could learn and accept each other's viewpoints. That's an easy ideal to believe in when you picture the Beatles encountering Indian philosophy, but you can only learn so much by finding new people you agree with. My true experiences with diversity here have largely been encounters with the culture I wanted most to get away from, mainstream, conservative, white America.

Perhaps "diversity" isn't the right word at all. What I'm talking about is adversity. The lesson is not just that there can be many different opinions, but that no one's got it all quite figured out yet. Verily, some people here do think they have everything figured out in their religious worldview, but to that I can only say that this lesson is for me, not them. For me, the greatest lesson to learn at Dartmouth is that in almost any argument, there are not two sides, but four.

Put it this way: I watch a lot of news talk shows, and it's always infuriating to see pundits just taking turns putting ridiculous words in each other's mouth. Every stance is hard-line, presumptuous and obsessed with making the other side look impossible for any person to believe. This isn't merely an effective tactic of argument. There is an irreconcilable breakdown at hand when you hear a comment like, "The Democrats are just trying to distract us because they know they don't represent the good of the nation." Crap like this is all over the airwaves, and it's coming from all sides.

And for good reason: it sells. It's easier to sell infinite contention than resolution. It's sad that Bill Maher, the man who in my opinion best represents the practice of fairly acknowledging the intentions of both sides and trying to resolve them on those grounds, is losing his show at the end of this season. It's sad because we're being inundated with information so crucial to our lives and our forming beliefs from a mass media that validates wild accusations, and fails to teach the importance of trying to look at things from each other's perspective from time to time. All we seem to know how to do is to decide that our opponents represent the most egregious extremes. And then we're expected to turn around and appreciate each other?

Hence the adversity I've cherished so much in writing columns. But the real lesson, I found, did not come from researching issues and writing them up. Instead, it came from talking with the people who vehemently disagreed with me and realizing how much we actually agreed upon. Diversity's all well and good, but it's the things you have in common with different people that will surprise and affect you. I think we'd do well every now and then to focus on our common goals (and here's where I weigh in on a couple of issues before my final column is over).

The Greek system and the administration both want to provide the best possible social scene here. Neither the system of privilege that exists now nor the student-less Student Life Initiative promise to improve the equity of social options or our sorry campus dating scene, but only cooperation will produce anything worthwhile. The cycle of blame is pointless: Greek members want to be as inclusive as they can (though they can't without help from above to overhaul the system), and the administration doesn't want to take all the fun away from our social lives (though they might if not given some guidance). The popular sentiment that has turned the Greeks and the administrators into enemies is really just counterproductive.

Equally useless is our polarization around issues like the Middle East. I am extremely disappointed by members of the Dartmouth community who have criticized Hillel for voicing its support for the nation of Israel. Our people in Israel and around the world have been targeted for violence and hatred because we are Jews; can any of you not admit the honest intention of standing together as a people to face those forces? Can you tell me that this decision reflects an inability to distinguish between good and bad actions taken by Israel? No Israeli is always in total agreement with the actions of his government. So why should we spend our time insulting our peers with baseless accusations for holding that same stance? "We stand with Israel" is not a political statement by a religious group; it is an affirmation of nationality by members of an ethnic diaspora who have always called ourselves the children of Israel. This is too obvious to be divisive. Are we to forget who we are in the interest of avoiding difficult issues?

Sometimes you have to stop worrying about rubbing people the wrong way. You cannot appease everyone and maintain any sense of identity. This is common sense, but it has become a core conservative value, fueling arguments I abhor, like those for continuing the Indian mascot, or those defending misogynistic "wah-hoo-wah" chants. I'd love to find out that those ideas are based on an entirely alien and defunct code of values, but they're not. They're based on the same values that pretty much all of us have. And once you see that all of our arguments are the same way, it all becomes just a game of where you draw the line.