Unusual combinations

“Allegheny College has a no-tolerance policy toward any type of racism, sexism, religious bigotry or other form of discrimination, such as discrimination based on sexual orientation. Allegheny is dedicated to furthering the potential of each member of its community through education and will confront and respond to all forms of hatred. We advocate a diverse community which is not hampered by intimidation, hostility, or other types of offensive behavior.

“Allegheny affirms its commitment to the principles of free speech and inquiry. The legitimate exercise of these freedoms in our community does not include either the right to engage in abusive behavior toward others or to curtail the freedom of others to participate in a shared learning experience.”      

-The Compass Handbook, p. 126 

When we are closest to expressing opinions that can be considered “discrimination,” we do not curtail discussion, but promote it. Consider some of the recently published articles in The Campus. Some caustic words have found their place throughout The Campus’s Web site – melanoma, perversions, disgust, intolerant – but has our discussion been fruitful? People accuse each other of not considering others’ opinions. Have you? Can you? When an emotional charge rips through conversation and renders listeners and speakers mute and deaf to each other, how are we to “participate in a shared learning experience”? 

Several days ago, a member of Residence Life sent out an e-mail to the Residence Life student staff criticizing The Discovery Channel’s decision to grant Sarah Palin a television show. About fourteen hours later, this same member of ResLife e-mailed an apology expressing his “flagrant disregard for personal politics.” In this email, the “offender” indicates that, as advised, he will keep his politics to himself. Liberals and conservatives alike are encouraged to keep their opinions to themselves, and, it seems, so is everyone else. 

“Allegheny students and employees are committed to creating an inclusive, respectful

and safe residential learning community that will actively confront and challenge

racism, sexism, heterosexism, religious bigotry, and other forms of harassment and

discrimination. We encourage individual growth by promoting a free exchange

of ideas in a setting that values diversity, trust and equality. So that the right of

all to participate in a shared learning experience is upheld, Allegheny affirms its

commitment to the principles of freedom of speech and inquiry, while at the same

time fostering responsibility and accountability in the exercise of these freedoms.”      

-The Compass Handbook, p. 1 

The Compass’s writers reveal their own bigotry when they call others bigoted—it’s a defensive reflex, like a rattler striking. Allegheny’s Statement of Community (reproduced above) is merely the hollow tail of the fanged governing body above.

The charge of “religious bigotry”  is especially confusing. Every religion believes it has a monopoly on truth—as does irreligion. The very term “bigotry” implies that there are two sides; those who put it forth further presume there can be neutrality between absolute opposites. 

This term immediately charges those who espouse religious views with automatic “bigotry,” thereby assigning sides and a hierarchy to the argument.  Those whom Allegheny’s Statement of Community deems “bigoted” have their motives made subject to all sorts of malicious psychoanalysis. Authorities who issue this charge think they “stand above” this conflict; they try to make arguments in favor of a higher moral order meaningless by assigning them a derogatory basis. Religious people are banished to the lower rung of the dispute. Only they can be “biased” in favor of their side; the atheists, though, are not seen as “biased,” even though they operate on a separate code of morality. 

Why must we all behave as though religion and personal politics were some kind of curious, inexplicable personal tick? The phrases “freedom of religion” and “freedom of speech” do not mean coercive, sanctioned freedom from religion and political speech. There is an enormous difference between encouraging a free-wheeling discussion between faiths and political views and forbidding any one of them from claiming that it alone holds the truth. The Compass demands that everyone behave like apolitical agnostics in public.  

Some claim that everyone must be made “comfortable” in a learning environment, that “divisive” language will not be “tolerated.” What is considered divisive  by some is found to be acceptable or engaging by others. And what is tasteful to some is often found to be offensive by others. We are told to celebrate “diversity.” Is it true that divisive comments have no place in a diverse society? Can we call ourselves tolerant while excluding those who we deem intolerant from conversation?

With no clear understanding of what is acceptable and what is vulgar, how is one to be comfortable expressing any opinion at all? Go to The Campus’s Web site if you want to see how the Internet shields the unsettled. It seems that a technological barrier provides readers with the comfort necessary to open up.

Behind race, gender, and sexual orientation is the emotional charge mentioned earlier – these subjects are mentioned with apprehension. Yet they play a crucial role at Allegheny. They play a part in hiring and admissions processes on our campus. We want diversity. Minority groups have an edgy advantage in these processes. But what good is it to have a black woman in a white room when no one is willing to talk about race? Who benefits from the presence of an openly gay man when sexuality is not to be discussed? It is true that discussing these matters can cause discomfort. People may even be offended when views are expressed that challenge their own. But we will only be able to enjoy the fruits of discussion and a “shared learning experience” when different perspectives are more than just present. These perspectives must be unpacked. 

Last week, Matt attended Sue Rankin’s presentation of the Allegheny Campus Climate Survey. At the end of Ms. Rankin’s presentation, Matt asked, “What is one thing we can do right away to make our campus a more comfortable place?” Rankin responded by indicating that a statement of our community standards should be widely dispersed throughout our campus. In the long-term, Rankin suggested that we also promote these standards through Allegheny’s curriculum. With a student body that aims and claims to be progressive and accepting, shouldn’t such measures be considered superfluous? It is time we stop reassuring ourselves of how progressive our campus is in order to begin addressing where Allegheny is still weak.

What is free speech?  Is it the freedom to challenge orthodoxy? Can it coexist with a governing body determined to limit debate with ambiguous, threatening mandates? These limits are not recognized until they are violated, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. But if we’re trying to promote free speech, do we want self-censorship? Do we want the religious members of our community to feel like fugitives? Do we want people afraid to speak their minds, or to have them fear a hateful backlash from their classmates?

Allegheny claims to be a place celebrating students’ uniqueness. Our students’ diverse interests and backgrounds have produced the slogan “unusual combinations.” If we truly want to honor Allegheny’s slogan of “unusual combinations,” and if we want to create and sustain an environment conducive for a variety of thinkers, then we must be sure to promote an environment in which everyone can grow and learn. We must create and be an environment in which people are unafraid to express themselves, regardless of what their opinions may be.