Verbum Ultimum: Let’s Talk Civil Discourse
Dartmouth must recommit itself to ensuring that free speech on campus can thrive by rejecting harassment and denigration.
As members of The Dartmouth Editorial Board, we hold a unique perspective on the recent campus-wide debate about freedom of speech. We are proud of the platform this paper has provided for all sides to present their arguments. However, certain developments in the exchange of viewpoints among students outside of our publication have troubled us deeply. It is painfully clear that not all students feel comfortable expressing their opinions due to well-founded fears of harassment or threats to their safety, whether that should occur online or in person. Earlier this week, the Deans of the College’s five schools and Senior Diversity Officer Shontay Delalue sent an email statement to campus, imploring us to “lift up the free and open exchange of ideas” while stating that “threats and intimidation are not part of productive dialogue.” We echo this sentiment, as we believe that our community has the responsibility to uphold civil discourse. We call on all students to recommit themselves to civil discourse and respectful disagreement.
At the same time, we would like to emphasize that we must not tolerate hate speech here. We are allowed to express different viewpoints, but not when they threaten to harm members of our community. Attacking students for their identity has no place in campus discourse. Instead, we must engage with other viewpoints that we don’t agree with to facilitate productive dialogue on campus. This distinction between viewpoints which may make us uncomfortable, but aren’t a threat to our safety, and those that do, is key. Everyone on campus, from students all the way up to College leadership, has room for growth on this.
A key initiative of President Sian Leah Beilock’s first year has been promoting “brave spaces,” which are opportunities for students to engage in robust debate and discussion of difficult topics. But if other students threaten, denigrate or otherwise attempt to silence their peers who hold different perspectives, these brave spaces will remain a fantasy. We must make a good-faith effort to engage with our peers’ ideas and avoid contributing to an atmosphere where anyone feels unsafe publicly expressing their views.
Our concern over this matter stems from a concerning trend we have witnessed over the past several weeks at Dartmouth’s peer institutions. Students hiding behind the mask of online anonymity have vilified their classmates for their identities, as well as their political beliefs. These may include instances of doxxing, or the non-consensual dissemination of someone’s personal information, typically occurring online and with malicious intent. At Harvard University, students who signed onto a letter from the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee had their faces and names plastered on a “doxxing truck” under the heading “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites” which circled campus. Similar instances have occurred at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. These are unacceptable.
However, the most concerning trend is the emergence of websites that include signatories’ personal information, such as past employment and hometowns. Although letters of support are public statements with signatories’ names on them, plastering signatories’ names on billboards and revealing personal information scares people away from voicing opinions, especially if that information is further disseminated on social media. No one should feel afraid to voice their opinions as long as they do so in a respectful, non-hateful way. The fear of social repercussions on campus discourages productive dialogue by deterring students from expressing their opinions in the first place.
Recently, due to fears of harassment, many students have expressed fear of publicly making any sort of statements with their name in our paper. Students who spoke at a recent rally refused to be named in an article covering the event, and they threatened our reporters with unspecified legal action if their names were listed in our coverage in association with the event. We understand why students feel this way: If doxxing, threats and harassment has become so normalized, why would anyone be willing to attach their name to a political statement?
Yet, in order to discuss these difficult issues productively, we all need to be comfortable and willing to back our words with our names — and that means that we all have a responsibility to make others feel safe in doing so. In our experience, attaching your name to a statement is an important social motivator to ensure speech is fair, well-reasoned and accurate. Without the accountability of having your name attached to a statement, it is easier to take more extreme or less factually-sound stances knowing that you personally will not be held responsible for the views expressed. Consider the anonymous forum Fizz: Problematic speech is rampant on the app, and we doubt that many of the students who post such content would post the same thing if their name were attached. Social accountability is important for ensuring that civil discourse stays civil, and we must cultivate an environment in which people feel safe speaking out. Otherwise, this atmosphere of intolerance will only grow more intense.
As our campus and the nation at large grapple with difficult topics, we must renew our commitment to the bounds of civil discourse. It can be tempting to condemn those who disagree with us, but such behavior only drives people away from participating in the difficult and uncomfortable conversations that we urgently need to have. Partisan divides cannot be solved by ostracism, but rather by good-faith efforts to understand each other.
While this newspaper serves as an important facilitator of these discussions, we cannot do this alone. President Beilock introduced the idea of brave spaces to this campus, and we hope her administration will recommit to providing opportunities for discussion and mutual understanding as we move forward together. Recent panels and forums have been a good start, but Dartmouth must offer more opportunities for these brave spaces to occur if our community is to heal following the arrests of two undergraduate students.
Often, members of this Editorial Board disagree with each other over the appropriate stance to take on a particular issue. However, we are able to function as a team because we refuse to let these differences of opinion irrevocably divide us. This is a microcosm of how Dartmouth can function at its best when the campus community commits to listening respectfully to one another. This is what we believe brave spaces should foster here at Dartmouth, but it will take each one of us to make this happen.
The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.