So Much for Character

by Andrew Seal | 11/10/05 6:00am

The multiple responses to Sara del Nido '08's recent columns demonstrate very well the common retorts to any calls for sensitivity and communal awareness : resentment and irritation, with a dash of alternative ideas for how a society should be run.

Frederick Meyer '08 believes in a "Fair and Balanced Social Activism," but he ends up not advocating activism of any sort but rather a laissez-faire passivity where we assume that all intentions are benign and thoughtlessness is no real fault ("Fair and Balanced Social Activism," Nov. 8). Not only is that naive, but it is also demonstrates the exact restrictiveness that Meyer identifies and condemns in del Nido's arguments.

Meyer's idea is of a society where social differences only appear when we're laughing about them together, at "white trash"-themed parties or over blitz. Otherwise, we avoid "keeping them strenuously and paranoically in mind." That makes them harmless, right? By keeping them out of our minds and off the opinion page, we've pretty much solved that exclusion thing, right? No.

By shouting down attempts to question the motives of a group or an individual, we have already judged, justified and approved those motives. By keeping the possibility of prejudicial judgments on color, creed, class or country out of our minds and out of the discussion, we support all possible judgments, including those that judge prejudicially and unfairly. This is restrictive because it prevents the development of those motives and judgments -- in any direction. Social passivism seeks stasis and imposes that stasis on all members of the society. Development of character, however it is defined, is impossible in a society that refuses to let people criticize the actions, question the motives, and explode the pretensions of others.

I am not saying here that racism is rampant, classism common and sexism standard. I am saying that we cannot know anything about the presence, effects or extent of prejudice or inequality if we demonize our chastisers and pillory those who try to investigate our faults. Character -- that quality that we have been charged to develop -- is impossible without criticism. Passivism destroys the possibility of character development.

It may be impossible for these issues to be fully solved. But passivism does absolutely nothing positive. "Why are you bugging me?" is not a constructive response to social criticism. It stagnates our community, usurps the possibility of personal or communal development and justifies indiscriminately all our motives and judgments -- even the bad ones.

I am not asking that each Dartmouth student ask themselves persistently, "Was what I just said offensive to anyone?" I am asking that when someone does ask that question about themselves or about others, we do not attempt to shut them out. Morality would not be very far along without critics; neither would civilization. Chastisement is often irritating, but nevertheless indispensable -- for community, for clarity, and for character.