Verbum Ultimum: Say It Like You Mean It

President Hanlon’s email to campus was anything but supportive.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 10/30/18 2:20am

Last Saturday, 11 Jewish congregants were murdered and six others were injured as they worshipped at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The Anti-Defamation League believes it was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history. Last Wednesday, two black people were shot and killed in a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky. Authorities are currently investigating the murders as a hate crime; before the shooting, the alleged shooter tried to enter a predominantly black church but was unable to get inside. Across last week, explosive devices were mailed to more than dozen prominent individuals and organizations — including former U.S. President Barack Obama, 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, billionaire and liberal donor George Soros, and CNN — who have criticized President Donald Trump. These actions were disgusting examples of hate crimes and politicized violence, and the Editorial Board stands in solidarity with the victims.

But you wouldn’t know that any of these things had happened from reading the email College President Phil Hanlon sent to campus Monday morning.

The email, sent with the subject line “Recent National Events,” is astounding in its vagueness and passivity. One would assume that the purpose of such an email would be to condemn the violence of the attacks and provide support for students who feel threatened or who are in mourning. But if this was Hanlon’s intention, then he utterly botched the execution. Not once does his email mention the nature of the attacks or the identities of the victims, or even specify what events he is referring to. Instead, he lumps acts of violence together, reducing them to “events across our country this past week targeting people for who they are--their religion, political views, gender identity, race, and ethnicity,” and notes that they have left “many of us saddened and concerned.” In an email meant to provide support for “people in our community [who] are feeling afraid,” it is disgraceful that Hanlon cannot legitimize these people’s fears by naming, with specificity, why they are afraid. It is disgraceful that the only emotions he seems to find worth mentioning are sadness and concern — not outrage, not disgust, not moral indignation.

These remarks would be bad enough at any time, but they are particularly concerning in America’s current political climate. President Trump has failed to consistently condemn the attempted bomber, instead choosing to accuse the press of creating a hostile atmosphere that led to the attempted attacks. At one point, he implied that the bombs were a liberal hoax meant to discredit Republicans. While his response to the shooting in Pittsburgh was slightly stronger, he has also fueled an atmosphere of increasing white nationalism, one in which anti-Semitic racists are often allowed to thrive. He even declared that neo-Nazis in Charlottesville included some “very fine people.” And he has failed to address the Kentucky murders at all. Given this backdrop, one would hope that President Hanlon would be willing to take a forceful stand by calling out specific violent actions against the groups Trump has marginalized — but apparently that is too much to ask for.

Yet the problems with Hanlon’s email go beyond its half-hearted condemnations. Hanlon declares that “violence, intolerance, and toxic divisiveness” can only be solved through “empathy, understanding, and open dialogue.” In general, of course, the Editorial Board supports these principles as essential to civic society, and agrees that it is important for people from all sides of the political spectrum to hear and understand one another. But Hanlon’s comment implies that it is polarization itself that fueled last week’s violent attacks, rather than the atypically destructive actions of a few deranged individuals. Under this model, nonviolent protesters with strong ideologies are held morally equivalent to violent extremists. It is one thing to condemn overt anti-Semitism and racist dog whistles that directly or indirectly encourage violence. (And it is similarly appropriate to call out liberal extremism, such as when James Hodgkinson opened fire on Congressional Republicans last year.) But blaming polarization for attacks of terror without distinguishing between its different forms is a lazy cop-out that avoids placing blame where it truly belongs: at the feet of those who perform violence, and of those who incite it.

Even more concerning is the implicit victim-blaming intrinsic to Hanlon’s statement. If polarization as a whole is responsible for the violence of the modern era, then it logically follows that both sides bear liability for inciting it. Under this argument, Obama, Clinton and the other bomb recipients might have avoided being targeted if they had simply been nicer to their attacker. The 11 dead in Pittsburgh might be alive if they had just talked with the anti-Semites who wish them harm and deny their personhood. The two black victims in Kentucky could have evaded harm if they’d had an earnest discussion with their murderer before he became violent. And by calling on Dartmouth to “model” these behaviors, Hanlon implicitly places the onus on the Dartmouth community to reach out to those who might wish them harm as well — even as he simultaneously acknowledges that community members “may be impacted by these harmful events.”

One of the goals of The Call to Lead capital campaign, which Hanlon has overseen, is for Dartmouth to train its students to become leaders. Perhaps the College should focus on teaching these lessons at the top, as well.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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