Letter to the Editor

Gail Newman

To the Editor, 

Does Williams have a speech problem, as some of my faculty colleagues have asserted? While there is no question that the notion of freedom of speech put forth in the First Amendment has been complicated in interesting but challenging ways in recent years, I would submit that what Williams has – mirroring the rest of our culture – is more of a listening problem. As more and more different voices ask, demand and expect to be heard on campus, those of us who have considered our perspectives and habits to be the norm expend our energy scurrying around trying to find solutions to the “problem” that we define those voices to be, rather than listening carefully and curiously to what they are saying. It is much more difficult to hear others when you’re focused on trying to convince them of what you are certain is right.  

It is also more difficult to hear others’ voices when they are speaking in a language that is foreign to you. The world our students have grown up in – a world marked by climate change, political extremism and economic inequality – makes for an entirely different experience of and approach to the past, present and future than previous generations’. As a consequence, the language used to express expectations, fears and protest has changed, and continues to change at a rapid pace. Rather than slowing down, focusing our minds and straining our ears to learn this new language, we have tended to speak more loudly and act more frantically to make our own language understood.  

In a way then, I could say we have a translation problem, too. People from marginalized groups have been asked to do all the translating: they are required to “read” the dominant culture accurately and speak its language fluently enough not to stand out. Perhaps it is time for us to do a bit of the hard work of reading and speaking another language. Every day, I’m humbled by my language students’ willingness to make themselves vulnerable, to listen closely to each other and themselves and to take the risk of speaking provisionally, without knowing if what they are saying is “correct.” I wish the same for our community.

Gail M. Newman

Harold J. Henry Professor of German and Comparative Literature