Community must be inclusive

Kevin Koernig ’05 writes that in our heady modern times we have forgotten the meaning of community. He offers as a definition: “Communities, by their nature, are set up by majorities for majorities. A group of people with some sort of similar circumstance – be it ideology, ethnicity, religion or even mere geographic proximity – come together as a matter of convenience and security.”

Koernig offers this definition to explain why the College was correct to erase offensive Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender Union (BGLTU) chalkings. According to Koernig, communities have always been instituted by “majorities” and are perfectly right to exclude “minority” opinion. In suggesting that we have forgotten the true meaning of community, it is as if Koernig refers to some archaic time when our ancestors, the Majoritites, decided to band together as a tribe to protect themselves from saber-tooth tigers and the dangerous, sinister roving enemies known as “Minoritites.” And, indeed, Koernig is spot on – communities do provide protection.

I would like to point readers to comments that Koernig made in his October 23 article, “Realistic View of Criticism.” In that article Koernig relays very scary stories of conservative “pro-American” students being “censored” on college and high school campuses across the country. Koernig describes a horrifying group called the “sensitivity police” that seem intent on stifling the voices of the few pro-American students brave enough to voice their support for the Stars and Stripes in a time of war.

Koernig wrote that the sensitivity police “refuse to allow displays of patriotism to proceed for fear of potentially offending somebody.” What Koernig is referring to in this article and others, such has his masterfully argued “Tired of Trying to Understand” and “Faculty Diversity Misunderstood,” is that college campuses are dominated by “politically correct” students, faculty and administrations who stifle the voices of their conservative minorities.

In “Realistic View of Criticism,” Koernig gives several examples of the liberal majority’s abuse of power at the expense of free speech. One such example is of a junior at Fairview Park High School in Ohio who was suspended for putting up “pro-war” posters on his locker. I think it is fair to presume that this junior was punished for expressing views that angered the majority – his speech was, if we are to believe Koernig’s account of the story, stifled for being a long “divisive” minority opinion.

He also recounts the sad tale of the Madison, Wisc. school board voting 3-2 to discontinue daily Pledges of Allegiance by public schoolers. Koernig is here quite clearly angered by the majority vote of the school board and believes that the right of patriotic students to recite the Pledge has been censored because they happen to be the “minority” in a liberal city.

Koernig writes that the BGLTU’s chalkings have no place on the College’s sidewalks because they were “obscene and anonymous” and because they reflected the views of a minority group –views that the majority of the community (or by Koernig’s definition, the entire community, seeing as how he defines the community to be the majority) finds offensive.

Indeed, the chalkings do make people feel uncomfortable and they do offend many people’s sensibilities – I will allow the distinct possibility that the BGLTU’s chalkings may have offended the majority of people who read them. Yet, in his previous writing, Koernig has provided wisdom that ought to help us all navigate through our offense and discomfort. Again from his Oct. 23 article, “[we] remember one important lesson from Sept. 11: that there are far worse things than being a little uncomfortable.”

Yes, Koernig, there are worse things than being uncomfortable. One far worse thing would be to have one’s rightful participation in a plural community denied because one represents a minority belief or view. You ought to be acutely aware of the challenges that are felt by those holding an opinion deemed offensive by the majority of their community. Your right-wing rhetoric puts you in a tiny, unpopular “minority” on this campus.

Please allow me to offer another definition of “community,” one that encourages opposing views to exist side by side.

A community is not the manifestation of majority opinion or majority will but is the mutual identity and agreed-upon rules that allow everyone to freely express their views – no matter how popular or despised they may be. A community can be a group of people who have joined together to trade ideas, to debate, to listen, to question, to share, to criticize and to learn – sometimes by synthesizing our oppositions, sometimes by appreciating them.

I would like to end by invoking another important tenet of my idea of Williams as a community of learners. We hold in high esteem the value of original and creative thought. Surely Koernig, our leading expert on society’s moral decay, knows the value of honesty. And for that reason, I find it very interesting – and even more disturbing – that Koernig has lifted several ideas and some direct quotes from an article written by Herbert I. London that can be found on the website for American Outlook magazine, http://www.hudson.org/learn/index.cfm?fuseaction=staff_bio&eid=LondHerb. Koernig offers an example of the “sensitivity police” at work by copying London’s description of a SUNY-Albany incident in which black students supposedly protested the word “picnic” as being of racist origins.

The term “sensitivity police” is, in fact, London’s, not Koernig’s, and aside from the general description of the event reappearing in Koernig’s work, unattributed to London, Koernig borrows at least three other substantial sentence fragments from London’s piece.

I invite your readers to investigate for themselves: Go to the midway point in London’s article, “The Decline of American Universities,” December 2000, and begin reading at the paragraph that describes the picnic to celebrate Jackie Robinson.

Koernig, I hope that you continue to celebrate your right to participate in the free exchange of sometimes-offensive ideas; but don’t forget that this right ought to be universal.