Roberts: Peace, Love and Conformity

by Regan Roberts | 4/18/16 5:30pm

The group of misfit women who established Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority in 1993 initiated the house’s traditional “Derby” party. These women created a home for themselves beyond the existing options in Greek life. When mulling over a spring “darty” theme, these local sisters thought of the horse racing parties, such as the Kentucky Derby and the Carolina Cup, that are the staple theme for springtime sorority parties in the South. Considering this, sisters have in years past invited guests and dressed in hats and flair rather than dresses to make a creative and light-hearted “mockery” of the typical parties thrown by their nationally affiliated counterparts.

Just two weeks ago, KDE’s current executive board met with the protesters of last year’s Derby party. Afterward, the executive board held a meeting to express its view that the origin of the Kentucky Derby involves severe racism. They argued that the Derby theme should be changed to Woodstock to appease protesters’ demands, uphold the house’s reputation of inclusivity and avoid bad press. Although the executive board’s claim that the party “recreates the Antebellum South” was not substantiated with evidence beyond protestors’ claims, it was clearly taken for truth when 96 percent of the 50 women present voted in favor of the change.

The executive board presented a slideshow on the problematic nature of the allegedly “racist and classist” Derby party. During this time, they assured us that Woodstock —the four-day music festival of drug-induced self-indulgence by a crowd of white, anti-war southerners — is not at all problematic, asserting their opinion to be the singular, correct interpretation of the proposed theme. Such statements, however, inaccurately suggest that there is a correct, enforceable definition of what “problematic” means. Everything is problematic to someone. In light of the anti-war nature of the festival, however, it is understandable how some students perceive the choice to instead celebrate Woodstock is perceived as problematic. While veterans at Dartmouth have remained quiet so far, the Black Lives Matter protesters did not hesitate to threaten this year’s spring event. Is this why KDE felt compelled to yield to the protesters’ demands?

Instances such as the elimination of the Derby theme speak to the loss of an open campus. Rather than shifting the emphasis of the theme back to the party’s original purpose, the executive board insisted that the party may not reflect “Derby” nominally, because last year’s protesters pledged to return for this year’s event should the name of the party again be “Derby.” This submission to threat of protest is appalling on a college campus, meant to serve as a forum of intellectual discourse. On this campus, we are privileged to be surrounded by a wealth of students representing different backgrounds. Diversity is only worthwhile, however, when all opinions are permitted and encouraged equally — there is no right answer. Today, however, we forfeit our opinions to others’ threats and complaints of insensitivity.

Respectfully sharing your interpretation of an issue is hugely distinct from preaching it in the name of tolerance, reputation and political correctness. The current KDE executive board’s assertion of what they deemed an acceptable opinion reinforces the idea that there exists a correct interpretation. In reality, there is never a correct answer as to what is problematic or acceptable. If higher education teaches us one lesson, it is that no opinion is correct, just as no opinion is incorrect. All voices have validity — and we are here to consider them all.

While I can always appreciate the pursuit of mutual respect, I take issue with the culture of sensitivity and, truly, of protectionism that is prevailing on college campuses across the country. Fear of disagreement and of having to forfeit your own opinions for those deemed “acceptable and tolerant” has become the norm.

Last year, students at Princeton University established a student group, “Open Campus Coalition,” to raise awareness of this oppressive culture of political correctness. The POCC’s mission is to “[protect] diversity of thought and the right of all students to advance their academic and personal convictions in a manner free from intimidation” — and these grievances resonate within Dartmouth’s campus climate. While I respect the initiative of KDE’s current executive board, I am concerned by their compulsion to advocate for political correctness. This decision reflects this prevailing protectionist culture. At what point did the purpose of academia shift from serving as a platform of respectful disagreement to emphasizing the promotion of a singular opinion? The purpose of academia has a much higher calling than preaching a politically “correct” interpretation of history, current events or any discourse. We pursue higher education for disagreement and discussion — not to conform to the “correct” interpretation of issues our country faces.

Reverting the Derby theme to its original purpose as a critique of southern Greek culture would have opened the door to an important conversation at Dartmouth. Instead, conversations about some individuals’ perceived connotations of Derby, or the debate of local versus national Greek life, have been sidestepped for fear of protest and discomfort. Protest and dialogue are perfectly acceptable modes of ideological discussion that should be pursued rather than avoided like the plague. We should be asking ourselves and our peers every question under the sun while we are still at this College, among the brightest and most diverse thinkers we may ever meet. I echo J. Moreau Brown ‘39, when he stated, “If the answer to the problems of the world is to resign, well education at Dartmouth has changed.” Education is the process of challenging yourself; growth and knowledge from disagreement require critical thinking and an “open campus” mindset. Otherwise, if everyone agrees, it is clear that no one is thinking.

Roberts is a member of Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority and was the vice president of the 2016 executive board.