The value of dissent

The Claiming Williams mission statement told us that Claiming Williams was meant as a day to deal with the “uncomfortable reality that not all students can claim Williams equally.” Unfortunately, the real uncomfortable reality is that Claiming Williams has failed its mission.

In one particular session on Thursday, a film was screened showing a number of predominantly non-white students talking about encounters with “class, race and ethnicity, treatment of women on weekends and the entry and JA system.” The overwhelming opinion portrayed in the film was that the College did and does not offer redress to underprivileged minorities for their concerns once they set foot on campus.

I cannot speak on the treatment of women on weekends, both because I am not female and because I do not go out much on weekends. I can also offer no authority on people’s hardships with their JAs and entries because I have found my entry and JAs to be one of the greatest parts about Williams. As an Asian on financial aid, however, I feel that I can speak on class and race.
My experiences have showed me that students are marginalized only when they allow themselves to be marginalized. Many students said that there are no opportunities for them but infinite niches for the dominant demographic. If this is the case, create your own niche. Do not complain and wait for the administration or activism groups to offer you choices. If there is no club for you, there is no excuse not to form one yourself. If other students belittle your background, it is solely your duty to defend yourself. Do not allow others to assign you worth; you are worth as much as you believe yourself to be an individual.

Of course, there are students who – either by outside pressure or their own nature – feel too meek to speak up. Even so, blaming others will only go so far. If some people cannot help themselves on days other than Claiming Williams, how can allies help, and how can we consider others obligated to help?

This means each student should work for internal change, not for global homogeneity in opinion. Part of diversity that is often overlooked is not just ethnic, but also intellectual. Claiming Williams was a day to allow under-represented students to personalize the campus. While I agree with the goal, I disagree with the approach. Claiming Williams Day implicitly told students to watch for and stop the use of certain words and, by extension, ideas. In this way, Claiming Williams is oxymoronic in its mission: By pressing an agenda, no matter how noble or admirable the case may be, it will necessarily be excluding some people.

To exclude people is to exclude knowledge. It would be much more useful and beneficial if the College were an intellectually safe space where anyone could feel free to say anything without fear of being ostracized. Most students have adopted an aggressive attitude towards diversity and equality: If students do not agree with a particular social and political mindset, they are quickly shunned in others’ minds. It does not matter why someone would hold these “outrageous” positions; to many people, the simple fact that a student does hold such a position is enough to warrant judgment and condemnation.

However, to suppress dissenting views – no matter how infuriating or wrong they seem – is to deny those people their chance to “claim Williams” as well. I cannot be so bold as to say that I hold the objectively correct position on any issue; I feel that I can defend my views, so I should only assume that those who disagree with mine could defend theirs as well. The alternative is simple disrespect towards their intelligence. Why should I immediately dismiss an argument simply because I have labeled it to be utterly ridiculous? It takes a special kind of intellectual snobbery and elitism to believe that one holds the key to the golden door of knowledge – a snobbery that, at this point, is being accepted and fostered by many in the Williams community.

“Institutional change” can only take activism so far. If the administration is to adopt a position on diversity, it cannot possibly represent everyone – the Williams student body will inevitably have those we label “bigots.” Do they not also deserve to “claim Williams” as much as the next person? Why should institutions favor one opinion over another and why should one viewpoint be immediately discarded for a more “worthy” or “correct” one?
The alternative is individual change. It takes more than a day of stories for change and something other than suppression of ideas to rid the suppression of identity. When every idea is considered, regardless of what it is, and when every opinion can be discussed rationally, we achieve understanding. Not every opinion must be accepted by all, but we should all respect its right to exist.

Charlie Cao ’13 is from Winnetka, Ill. He lives in Sage C.

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