The need for an Eph Style Guide

In “Candide,” Voltaire uses the character of Dr. Pangloss to satirize the unbridled optimism of the Enlightenment. Despite all the pain and madness around him, Pangloss argues that all is for the best in this “best of all possible worlds.”

Oren Cass ’05 made a not dissimilar argument in last week’s Record (“The Committee on Perfection”) when he complained that efforts to make Williams a more sensitive community are doomed to failure. He claimed, “We can’t do better, we won’t do better and the efforts by all of us will be wasted.”

It would be unfair to describe Cass as Panglossian since his claim is not that the world is perfect, but that it, or at least Williams, is as close to perfect as we are likely to get. I disagree. One small change would, on the margin, make the College better off and significantly decrease the rate and severity of political or racial controversies.

I am not suggesting additional seminars on sensitivity, the hiring of diversity consultants or even more group hugs with Chaplain Rick Spalding. Instead, I think that the Williams community should create an ‘Eph Style Guide,’ a reference written by and for the College community; a guide for how to engage in the 200-year-old conversation that is Williams College, without (needlessly) giving or taking offense. Think of it as ‘Miss Manners: The Purple Cow Edition.’

People come to Williams from around the world and from a bewildering array of backgrounds. It is unrealistic to expect them all to know what words and phrases the community of Ephs judges to be offensive. Why not tell them, clearly and concisely and publicly? Bring together a committee of faculty and students from a wide range of viewpoints. Charge them with writing a guide to how we could all better get along, outlining that which is offensive and – perhaps even more important – that which is not.

What would be the key components of such a guide?

First, a clear and ringing affirmation of the central role played by unfettered intellectual inquiry at Williams. Freedom of thought and conscious must be protected and nurtured at all costs. Those who come to Williams from sheltered backgrounds may be unused to confronting radically different points of view, to having their ideas and beliefs challenged. They need to be reminded that intellectual honesty, saying what you believe and defending what you say, is the highest value at Williams, bar none. Freedom of speech does not stop at the top of Spring Street.

Second, such a guide could provide an overview of words and symbols that are simply beyond the pale. By all accounts, the KKK cookout controversy of last spring was an honest mistake. The author of the flyer did not realize that those three letters remain a potent symbol of hatred and injustice. An Eph Style Guide could make that clear. The existence of a guide, required reading for all members of the community, would remove ignorance as a defense.

Note that nothing in such a guide restricts speech in any way. It is a guide, not a code. If you want to advertise your flyer using the initials KKK, you are still free to do so. But your speech will be met with more speech. You will be called insensitive, because you are. You will be challenged, because you deserve to be. Yet honest mistakes will be made less likely.

Of course, an Eph Style Guide of limited length will need to make choices about what to include and what to exclude. KKK would be included, but “cakewalk,” a term with a viciously racist past, would probably not make the cut. Just the process of thinking harder, slowly and carefully, about what is offensive and why, is a valuable exercise for the College. I would expect the committee responsible for the guide to publish a series of drafts, hold (poorly attended) public meetings and actively seek comments from the broader community.

Third, a guide would make clear what is allowed, what difficult and controversial topics will be, indeed must be, discussed at Williams. For example, common culture affects individual decisions. American culture in the mid-19th century affected the decisions made by Abraham Lincoln just as Japanese culture of the 1920s and ’30s influenced Hirohito’s. To mau-mau Barnard over his claim that Hispanic culture influenced the behavior of specific contemporary baseball players, as some members of VISTA did last spring, is to misunderstand the sorts of conversations that must be allowed, even encouraged, at Williams.

An Eph Style Guide won’t solve all the problems at Williams. I agree with Cass that there is much in the recent scandal that could not have been prevented. But I think that Williams could have avoided, or at least ameliorated, the KKK Cookout and Barnard/VISTA controversies if such a guide had been in place.

At the end of “Candide,” Voltaire suggests that happiness is to be found in tending one’s own garden, in making small steps that make your corner of the world a better place. Alas, it is true that we don’t live – even under gentle confines of the purple valley – in the best of all possible worlds, but “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” An Eph Style Guide would be a fine way to start.