By Megan Locatis '16
This year, Kim Bottomly’s speech at Convocation was met with lukewarm applause. The tension between the face of the college’s administration and the student body saturated the air, cutting through what had been a moment of nostalgic joy and emotion for seniors such as myself. The chosen topic? Civility. But when you address a group of highly intelligent, capable students on the importance of controlled debate and the willingness to entertain and consider all ideas, regardless of how ill-conceived or outright offensive they may be at face value, your words come off as a rebuke more than anything. And I believe that it is only human nature that, feeling rebuked, we close our ears and tell ourselves that these words are poorly-chosen and irrelevant, that we are being dismissed as temperamental children who have yet to learn to control ourselves and engage in adult conversations.
The topic of civility resonated deeply with me. Given the political climate in this country and the increasing polarization that often ends in empty shouting matches filled with insults rather than serious consideration of the issues at hand, I thought civility was an extremely relevant topic to raise, especially heading into the election season. We could all stand a small refresher on how to treat each other with respect and dignity, how to cope with our clashing passions and points of view, how to treat ignorance not with scorn and derision, but rather with patience and compassion. I nodded along at the line, “We have all come from a place of ignorance.”
Imagine my surprise when, preparing to join a standing ovation at the end of this speech that I found so pertinent and well-worded, the air resounded instead with unenthusiastic and scattered applause. I am not unaware of the tensions between the student body and the president over so many critical issues. But surely, I thought to myself, we can take these words at face value and divorce them from the speaker. After all, did Bottomly not explicitly refer to that too-prevalent fallacy of ad hominem attacks used to undermine arguments or positions? Was this whole speech not designed to remind us to engage and refute ideas, not dismiss speakers?
I’m certain our juniors and seniors remember the heated climate of the entire campus following the installation of a certain lifelike statue of a man in his underwear. Yes, the Sleepwalker incited vigorous debate when many, driven by the concern that such a piece of art was a trigger to Wellesley siblings having experienced trauma, petitioned to have this piece removed from its highly-visible location just outside the campus center. A dichotomy arose: which was more important, protection of our students or the absolute freedom of expression? Thoughts on this matter exploded, filling public posters, class discussions, Facebook statuses, and dinnertime debates. How do we, as a student body of intellectuals, artists, thinkers, and activists negotiate this important space between the well- being of our fellow students and that which we cherish most: our ability to express our innermost thoughts, dreams, desires, and criticisms without fear of censorship and silence? And where does civility fit into this crucial debate?
Let me return to ignorance. Some of us are fortunate enough to live in communities that cultivate a deep understanding of what lies beyond ourselves—the experiences of underrepresented groups, the importance of understanding ethnocentrism and not allowing ourselves to be blinded by our cultural preconceptions Many of us are fortunate to have parents and mentors in our liberal communities that have guided us on this journey from our youth. But I cannot count myself in that group. I am a First Generation college student from what is politically a very red patch of rural Michigan. Wellesley was a place of discovery for me, a place where my peers could educate me simply by speaking of their experiences. My teachers were good friends who not only expressed their own thoughts and opinions, but engaged me when my ignorance came through and, rather than chastising me or scorning me for what I said, patiently considered my thoughts, pointed to weaknesses, and offered alternatives, not as absolute answers but as compelling arguments that I, as a peer, could choose to accept or reject. I never had to worry about humiliation; with these friends my ignorance was not a fatal flaw but simply a gap that could be filled. Blunt, poorly-chosen words were never contemptible; they were just a part of the learning process.
We often speak of privilege and the manifold forms that it takes in our society: whiteness, heterosexuality, being cisgender, being able-bodied, and so on. But a point of privilege that Bottomly highlighted in her speech, and that we as an intellectual community often forget, is the privilege of education, not just in general but in our specific areas of expertise. Bottomly argued that with any form of privilege, education and knowledge, comes responsibility. We are charged with aiding those less privileged; our duty is not to ridicule or shun those who do not know or understand, but rather to engage them in robust intellectual discussion. Ignorance and the expression of poorly-informed, distasteful ideas are not met with censorship and invalidation but discussion and consideration. This is the essence of civility, Bottomly asserted. It is the simple belief that our peers are intelligent beings capable of rational discourse, reflection, and above all are amenable to the possibility of changing their original position in any debate. It is the assumption that our opponents in any intellectual discussion are not children in need of lecturing, that we are not the bringers of Light and Truth and guardians of the lofty realm of what is Right, but rather imperfect humans sorting through a tricky world of diverging ideas, twisting logic, and the ever-present danger of fallacy. This world of debate is dark and full of terrors, and the only way we can hope to navigate it is by pulling each other through and pointing out perilous traps along the way. We may not all take the same path or arrive at the same destination, but we, as thinking human beings, all cross through this world, and our only hope to navigate it successfully is if we rely on each other to steer us out of places of ignorance and error.
So let us return to the great debate of safety and free speech. I took a first year seminar on free speech, and in studying the theory guiding our laws and Supreme Court decisions, we discussed in great detail the principle of a free marketplace of ideas and its necessary place in a healthy society. In his work On Liberty, John Stuart Mill postulates, “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race ... those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose ... the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” The underlying assumption is that we, as a society, are capable of distinguishing truth from error, and that truth will prevail. The danger is that error may overcome the uneducated masses, thereby promulgating an oppressive and harmful ideology. But here at Wellesley we are not speaking of the uneducated masses prone to the aforementioned pitfalls, liable to be trapped or to willingly remain in their shadowed places of ignorance; we are speaking of a community of bright, promising thinkers gathered here for the purposes of exchange and education. Each time that we silence what some of us arbitrarily view as harmful, we deprive the members of our community of the chance to, as Mill puts it, “[exchange] error for truth.” This is true each time we resort to mocking, derision, or chastisement rather than a constructive retort to even the most painfully ill-informed and poorly-worded expressions of thought.
My first year here, as I sat in the common area of my dorm working on a psychology reading, one of the girls in our group interrupted our intense, studious silence to pose a question for her sociology class: did we think it was important to allocate funds for recruiting students from lower socioeconomic status? Her position was that it was important to ensure that minorities were represented on campus, but that favoring students from low-income families and making allowances for them in the application process was not fair, since it deprived hard-working students from middle or upper income families of the opportunity to go to top tier schools. Her example was two of her friends, one who had been rejected, though her activities and admissions essay were impeccable, and the other, who had not participated in nearly as many activities but had been offered admission to several of her top choices. She made it sound as if she believed that other underrepresented groups faced undeserved challenges, but low-income students, whose challenges were tied to money, were not worthy of the same consideration.
I am a lower-income first generation student, an identity that I still struggle to claim publicly, and having this insensitive argument presented to me when I was just beginning to realize how many resources I had not had—tutors, money for application-enhancing activities, effective admissions counseling I was just beginning to confront that constant anxiety of passing when in the presence of my non-first gen friends, of wondering if my professors were secretly giving me pity boosts in my grades because I couldn’t be expected to handle the full rigors of Wellesley. When I heard this students’ words and her absolute lack of understanding, I wanted to rail against her. I wanted her to feel ashamed of how wrong she was.
I am so glad that I did not start that rant. I wish, of course, that I had been able to present a coherent counterargument, but my anger and need to prove her wrong would not have been conducive to the kind of conversation that is needed on this campus. We cannot continue to treat ignorance as a sin. On occasion I see the frustrations of those most hurt and most silenced by this very ignorance, and the final declaration that culminates as a result of too many insensitive comments and dismissals: it is not my job to educate you. But these are alienating words, words that place blame, words that create resentment. These are words that do not acknowledge that ignorance is rarely a choice but the result of a lack of opportunities; ignorance is the flipside of the privilege of knowledge. Civility is the capacity to graciously acknowledge this and to keep it at the forefront of our thoughts whenever we confront opposing viewpoints; it is the ability to admit that, as convinced as we may be of our own argument, we too may still be ignorant.
This is not an apology for tone-policing. Civility is neither a plea for moderation of tone or passion nor an exigence for thoughts to follow an arbitrary form or certain measures of decorum. It is nothing so superficial. It is an entreaty to recognize our opposition and engage not their person, not their history, but their ideas above all else; it is the immediate and unequivocal forgiveness of ignorance and the ever-present goodwill that allow for true exchange, education, and transformation to take place. A call for civility is not a reproach, though the word carries with it that implication. It is an appeal for the recognition of fallibility in both ourselves and in others; it is the openness of mind that allows us to admit that even our most deeply-held beliefs are subject to scrutiny. Such a mindset, such a surety of forgiveness for ignorance, allow for us to voice opinions without fear, to test our nascent thoughts, to call for help in that mire of debate as we search for our own truths. And most importantly, civility is the element that allows us to favor free speech over silence; it is the necessary goodwill that we all must carry to keep our ideas from becoming forces of oppression. As Mill puts it, “Every [person] who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions.” Debate is not war, and civility is what keeps it from becoming such; argument is a service to our community that, when guided by this principle of civility, is a force that erases ignorance and brings us closer to that great goal of all education: understanding.
From September 2015 Issue