Good Faith, Bad Faith

by Nathan Bruschi | 7/29/08 1:39am

The laughably absurd incident during the July 7 Dallas City Hall meeting of commissioners illustrates a lot of what is wrong with discourse today. The meeting received national media coverage because multiple black officials objected on the grounds of "racial insensitivity" to the comparison made by a white commissioner of a dysfunctional office (which routinely lost paperwork) to a "black hole" (a celestial object with gravitational pull so great that neither light nor matter can escape).

My colleague, Phil Aubart '10, used this event in a recent column as an example of how political correctness has gone too far in society ("Black Holes in Dallas," July 22). I disagree; political correctness is not at fault here. Political correctness is merely the awareness of the full connotations of particular words, however they may be officially defined in the dictionary. While it would make perfect grammatical sense to refer to a Chinese-American corporate recruiting agent as an "oriental," I don't think Phil or anyone else would because of the strong negative connotations society associates with that word. To be an effective communicator, it helps to have a strong grasp of the way others interpret parts of speech and only use them when those interpretations are desirable.

Instead, the black hole incident in Dallas highlights the absence of an important element in civil discussion -- the presumption of good faith. Rather than assuming that their white colleague was making a valid, non-racial analogy about the state of a government office, the black officials automatically assumed bad faith. They were quoted in the paper as having retorted that they thought the office had become a "white hole" -- in responding to perceived racism, those individuals showed that they were racist themselves.

There are really two forces at fault, and both are observable on our campus. First, particular affinity groups remove themselves from society at large. Conservative students seek political refuge in the offices of The Dartmouth Review, Catholics seek shared religious traditions in Aquinas House and Native Americans seek cultural solidarity in the NAD house. Being in such proximity to others with similar views allows those beliefs to be reinforced. The echo chamber caused by the expression and repetition of shared viewpoints convinces each member that his or her position is right. In the absence of opposition or external viewpoints, the group radicalizes and grows to perceive any disagreement as open hostility towards its identity.

Meanwhile, as the affinity groups retreat back into their own communities, campus at large loses the unique viewpoints these groups can offer. This often leads to a lack of understanding. Fundamentalists are able to believe that homosexuality is sinful because they do not interact with members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community on a regular basis; white kids believe that racism in America is dead because they don't hear the stories from their minority counterparts.

The result is that each group becomes overly sensitive while campus, and society at large, becomes insensitive. For the most part, only conservative students attend lectures given by conservative speakers, only students concerned about race relations attend community sensitivity forums and disinterested members of campus at large attend neither. Without opposing views coming in contact with each other, there can be no exchange of ideas or mutual understanding.

We saw this as hysterical SAPAs protested Drew Lerman's "Nietzsche comic" because they saw it not as an ironic and topical examination of the philosopher's doctrine, but rather as an endorsement of sexual violence against drunken women. Tyler Frisbee '08 and her supporters saw the issue of Beta reclaiming their house not as a legal one based on contractual agreements or property rights, but rather as a vast conspiracy to hold back female-dominated drinking spaces, despite the fact that AZD is both closed to the public and ostensibly dry. Community meetings and panel discussions have become less about asking questions to gain understanding, and more about espousing doctrine. All we have are disjointed monologues. Our questions now end in periods.

Over Panera sandwiches in President Wright's office last term, a student asked what the administration could do about a number of controversial speakers that some "marginal" groups had recently brought to campus. Asked to elaborate, the Muslim woman explained that she was offended that "right wing" student groups were able to invite lecturers who had authored books critical of Islam. After diplomatically assuring the questioner that he is powerless and unwilling to curtail free speech on campus, President Wright opined that these groups are not very effective in furthering their agendas because only those already in agreement with their views would bother to attend. And he's right.

As the College searches for a new president and experiences a reshuffling of administrators, it should rededicate itself to fostering this productive dialogue essential to the College's life, and so absent everywhere else. If the best conversations at Dartmouth occur at 2:00 AM in the privacy of dorm rooms, is Dartmouth really achieving its goal to support "the vigorous and open debate of ideas" as articulated in its Mission Statement?

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