Mature dialogue necessary on all issues

We view the events surrounding the Williams College Debate Union’s (WCDU) successful debate on affirmative action last week as indicative of several issues regarding the frank discussion of controversial issues on campus. The quality of the discussion and respect shown by the audience for the issue, which is one of the most divisive issues currently present in American politics and society, showed that having a substantive exchange of an ideas on a controversial issue is indeed possible at the College.

It is important to note, however, that while the debate was well executed, finding students to argue both positions proved to be more difficult than initially envisioned by WCDU. Specifically, according to Joe Gallagher ’03, a WCDU board member, most community members solicited to argue the anti-affirmative action position declined the invitation. Reasons cited ranged from personal time conflicts to a general desire not to argue the issue. Most disturbing, however, was that some of the solicited students cited a fear of public retribution if they showed support for such an unpopular opinion on campus as a reason not to participate. This fear, whether realistic or imagined, is unhealthy for the campus discourse. The cause of the fear is two-sided.

On one hand, a group of students who often argue passionately that their voices are not respected and represented on campus declined the invitation to represent their view in a well-respected public forum, citing concerns of being labeled as ‘racist.’

On the other hand, their perceived fear of retribution is real and troubling, though it should not negate our campus’ need for intellectual discourse. And, as evidenced by the audience’s positive response to the discussion, there are avenues available on campus for a well-reasoned exchange of views. The question is whether debates such as this can occur in the broader community dynamic without a defined structure such as a debate. Somehow, the passion that students have for issues seems outweighed by their fear of some of their peers.

Fear is an extreme form of discomfort. Discomfort, though, according to many at the College, is an essential part of learning. Unfortunately, the anxiety among students generated by not conforming to a socially “correct” viewpoint is so great that fear supercedes their desire to express their beliefs.

As with many issues, there are members of the student body, whether individuals or organizations, which do not want to engage in substantive debates about extremely sensitive, controversial issues. Undoubtedly, some issues, whether a debate about athletics, legacies, affirmative action or abortion, will cause discomfort – sometimes extreme – for certain members of the community. As hard as it is, especially on a small campus, that resulting insecurity should not manifest itself in efforts to stifle discourse – someone should not be labeled ‘racist’ for arguing against affirmative action. At the same time, although the passion of those theoretically initiating the discussion may not override the perceived detriment to their reputation (being labeled a racist, or homophobe or anti-athlete), a debate should still occur.

The campus has shown through certain events during the year that it possesses the capacity to engage in a rational discussion on potentially divisive and explosive issues. We do not feel that it has to be purely intellectual – after all, emotion certainly factors into our decision making process and provides direction for forming opinion. Thus, the two groups must find a middle ground that promotes an intellectual debate and does not elicit a fear – real or unfounded – of retribution. However, above all, everyone should recognize we are on a college campus. A student’s purpose is to engage in intellectual discourse.

But we face a dilemma when we try to ignite that discourse: who moves first, the student who fears debating or the student who, consciously or unconsciously, seeks to stifle debate? It is easy to say that a student should debate affirmative action; it is harder to justify that belief, though, if the student supposes he will be labeled a racist. Using such extreme words when discussing controversial topics only prevents discussion, invokes fear and ultimately does little good. Affirmative action should be debated frequently, if a compelling argument is made as to why it is a necessary discussion. But we should make the decision rationally; an anti-intellectual approach, or generating fear to silence dissent, is hardly rational. Of course, there is a moral and social consciousness to any debate; we should be sensitive to the feelings of those around us. But the success of the WCDU debate is an indicator of how we can approach the dilemmas successfully and have a productive discussion. In this instance, the students’ fears ultimately seemed largely unfounded.

But simply because a debate occurs under the auspices of an organization such as the WCDU does not mean that the same response cannot happen in the common room or dining hall. On one hand, students fearing retribution must actively make an investment in the campus discourse by taking full advantage of opportunities to represent their beliefs instead of being paralyzed by their fear. On the other hand, community members adhering to commonly held social beliefs must make their own investment by respecting the rational discussion of views that might not conform to popular opinion. Doing so will benefit the strength, candor and intellectual merit of our campus in a way consistent with the liberal arts model.