Friendly Fire: Live and Let Dialogue, Part I: The campus dialoguers are not nearly as ?tolerant? as they like to think

Posted by Brendan James

*Editor's Note: Read Part II here. 

In my last column I mentioned that our culture of "dialogue" prevents Skidmore from developing a rigorous, deliberative atmosphere on campus and thereby prevents us from truly cultivating the liberal arts. In the aftermath of my remarks, criticism emerged that my analysis of our campus culture was out of touch and prejudicial. If only I would engage, some pleaded; if only I would attend some of the initiatives under scrutiny, I just might have an epiphany.

This week I set out to answer that charge of prejudice. Beginning the descent from my ivory tower, I made sure to accept the invitations of President Zeidan and VP Alamgir to the massive community dialogue held on Wednesday, dubbed "Interrupting Silence."

My attending the event definitely produced an epiphany: I now see that dialogues are far more limiting and dogmatic public forums than I had initially thought.

My confusion began almost immediately after the crowd on the second floor of the dining hall had settled to hear an introduction. Follow the story if you can: Zeidan and Alamgir kicked things off by explaining that last year, amid the Compton's controversy and moments of seriously bad press for Skidmore, there was at least a storm of campus dialoguing going on, in which all of our hopes and fears were served out in the open as a delicious emotional buffet.

This year, however, there have been no nationally embarrassing debacles and our campus has fallen quiet on such sensitive matters as racial tension, homophobia, etc. Whereas many might see this absence of disruption and tragedy as a desirable thing, SGA and Fight Club are worried that our relative quiet this year signifies a dangerous acceptance of some invisible toxin bubbling just under the surface. Having offered this exposition to the group in Murray-Aikins, the two SGA officers then opened the floor up to everyone.

And no one. After a few minutes of murmuring and collective feet shuffling, I raised my hand and followed up on Zeidan's question as to what constitutes this "silence." Are we not, I asked, a school that takes extra care to cater toward anxieties over these issues? Do we not have an IGR program designed to advance the intercultural aspirations of our Strategic Plan goals? Do we not have an actual VP of Diversity Affairs within SGA? A Bias Response Group? A Center for Sex and Gender Relations?

How, in other words, are we expected to construe Skidmore's campus as a place in which these issues are not addressed, let alone one where a silence is imposed upon the members of our community?

My questions, before long, were met with whispers and glares, which soon mutated into calls for me to shut up and let everyone get on with the preordained program. I was sternly informed that by asking these questions I was "perpetuating the silence," which wonderfully confirmed my suspicion that the dialoguers are incapable of perceiving any unfamiliar sound within their echo chamber.

"Now we all know why you are here," another warned. "You have your agenda. But now, what you have to do is listen. And you have to empathize." Empathize, or else. So much for tolerance.

In no way were my interests covert: I was indeed there to ask questions, but I was also there to observe. So I did shut up for the next hour and a half.

What followed was unexpected: only fifteen minutes after I was silenced and the ventilator of personal narratives was rattling on full blast, the population of the room swiftly dropped by half. It seems that all of my indignant peers were actually as turned off by the whole enterprise as I was. So much for community.

I can hear a response: "Well, maybe if you hadn't wasted our time at the start, we would have had time to stay and listen to all the stories." (I now hear, following this curt remark, a downpour of snaps-of-agreement.) Forgive me dear reader and fellow dialoguer, but you must have noticed the deafening silence at the start of the event, that silence which was only overcome by some poking and prodding.

This, to make explicit my argument here, is evidence of the inherent impotence of the dialogue culture. And the more one exposes such impotence, the more swiftly one is labeled an obstacle to change.

Throughout, the organizers and participants repeated that this was to be a "free flowing dialogue" – an obvious falsification, evident as soon as one noticed the venom spat upon anyone who led the conversation away from the understood, preapproved topics. These topics are, exclusively, narratives of racial, socioeconomic or sexuality-based marginalization, and, for some spice, also the guilt of rich students who struggle to interact with their marginalized peers.

I cannot deliver my entire critique of either this specific dialogue or the larger project in the remaining space, but until next time, permit me to state the most basic problem with the entire system.

What I learned on Wednesday was this: the content of each dialogue is simply an aggregate of many unpleasant yet individual and disparate experiences. This aggregate is then distorted and recast as a universal, vague and institutional problem that must be addressed in order for our community to be safe and open. But, again, since the atoms of this grand problem are merely distinct, unique cases of unpleasantness, there really is nothing to be done, except cope with life's lemons – so long as one is being given a fair opportunity to pursue one's goals in the broader picture.

So the participants soon become weary and emotionally drained and head home, having conducted nothing more than an AA-style support group meeting. Thus the crew only accomplishes the first two items listed in SGA's fevered email advertising Wednesday's event: "We'll eat, we'll talk, and we'll finally MAKE THE CHANGE WE WANT TO SEE."

But thank the gods these dialogues are so impotent. As I will show, if the folks sat in Murray-Aikins that night had their way it would create a truly cold, unyielding silence on this campus that no dialogue could ever hope to interrupt.

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