As recently noted in a student-written, widely circulated blog post a few weeks back, there has existed at Williams a certain, exceptionally pungent strain of “cultural tension” that has pervaded campus conversations over the last semester–perhaps quite a bit longer, according to whom you’re asking. It’s a kind of tension whose effects extend far beyond those engrossed in its immediate conversation; no, it seems to touch and color every meta-discussion of Williams and all that’s right or wrong with the campus.
So far-reaching are the effects of these conversations that they demand a rapid and vigorous response from all of campus. Are you with us or against us? Are you an ally or an enemy? Or worse yet, some middling appeaser too cowardly to take a stance? A certain, often cited Howard Zinn quote about remaining stationary on a moving train comes to mind, but I’ll hold my tongue.
The reality is that we are not a campus of subatomic particles, existing only to be immediately and irresistibly polarized to one side of a conflict. It is rare for any debate not to beg for a higher level of scrutiny, especially at a place so complex as Williams. Students of the College should aim higher, to be willing to examine all sides of an issue and to challenge themselves in that pursuit. Campus discussions ought to be long, rich, and nuanced, not predicated on choosing one of two sides and launching headfirst towards it.
And though we may be more than protons and electrons, this school should strive to be a laboratory of ideas–a sanctuary for respectful, passionate debate, representing a broad spectrum of beliefs and schools of thought. We should celebrate differences of opinion, project them up against one another and enjoy the fruits of the resulting conversation. What good is a liberal arts education if not to reach out intellectually beyond our comfort zones?
This is by no means a suggestion that campus drop a healthy, long-standing tradition of critical self-evaluation–that would be intellectual suicide. The ability of the Williams community to self-assess and through that process improve is what has kept it so relevant and brilliant an institution for over two centuries. Nor is this some patronizing pat on the head to students righteously raising their voices in critique of problems at Williams. This is strictly the opposite–this is a call for more voices raised on all sides, for more discussion and debate of how to confront issues faced by students across campus. It’s a suggestion that people engage, that people stop compartmentalizing peers and ideas into little boxes, that people accept nuance, and that people debate and discuss things before careening to one side of any given argument.
At a school of 2000, a campuswide “you’re either with us or against us” mentality is dangerous. Passion for any issue is necessary (and thank God we have it–it fuels everything that Williams does well). But self-righteously demanding that passion into existence is unproductive without a more comprehensive understanding that can only come through a culture of constant, open discussion.
Williams often feels quiet. There’s a purple silence beneath which opinions bubble and feelings broil, only to burst forth in times of crisis through polarizing conversations that too often fail to address underlying problems. And that won’t change, not until people make the necessary effort of raising questions, of challenging themselves, of recognizing the complexities of other human beings.
Step up, Ephs.