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Make hard conversations effective

Yesterday, the Editorial Board discussed The Tab—a new campus publication—and the strong, visceral backlash it produced immediately after its launch. The publication and response reveal something similar; there exists an unsatisfied demand for a different type of social and political discourse at Duke, one that transcends the deep cleavages between communities on campus. Today, we tackle how discussions of social justice, intersectionality and related issues succeed and fail on campus and how we and the University are responsible for making conversations more accessible and productive.

First is the persistent issue that ideologies talk past each other. We note that conversation in groups like cultural student organizations is often constructive because an array of viewpoints is still represented despite common membership. When disparate groups are in conversation, however, they look amateurish in their engagement, whether on Facebook, The Chronicle’s Opinion section or other public forums. This is most evident after polarizing events that divide campus. Even worse, after making some impression even productive dialogues fade for lack of contact points for distinct campus groups. Sustained dialogue is vital, but sustained interest is hard to come by.

The tendency of different views to slip past each other seems natural, and the specific identities of individuals and organizations often dictates the degree to which that participant invests themselves in the conversation. A huge issue is that the supposedly privileged students being discussed are often at a loss. Even when students understand arguments about power structures and relative positions, there is difficulty in answering “I am sincerely interested, but what can I do?” At their worst, conversations become adversarial with a negative dichotomy between disadvantaged communities and those with “privilege.”

The first step to resolution is awareness, not through inflicting guilt but by seeing the systems that exist before, around and after us. Through classes and campus events, education is everywhere. After that, students have a collective responsibility to avoid blanket ideologies that do not recognize from where students of all levels of privilege are coming. Successful politics and problem-solving charitably recognize arguments' nuances and avoid militantly digging in against opposing or confusing viewpoints. An important motivation to remember is that, as Audre Lorde puts it, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle.” Those affected by multiple circles in the complicated venn diagram of social justice exist at intersections that are neither here nor there in social justice movements but require special attention. If you reflect and find yourself also defined by multiple identity features, then you should sympathize with the needs of these doubly marginalized groups.

Taking a step back from the student perspective, Duke cannot be held responsible as an institution for improving the authenticity of our discourse. Culture is too organic for that. In the pursuit of improvement, however, Duke certainly has a place in facilitating conversation. As it did with the common room conversations and counseling opportunities during last year’s events and tragedies, ensuring our student body is well-informed on these issues comes first. Second, there should be an ideal of reminding students that they are all impacted by the views of their peers and that campus dialogue is something they cannot and should not retreat from.

The proposition is not whether an institution can dictate culture, or whether culture is too obdurate for successful interventions. The two must work together. Students have demonstrated a demand for something better, and it is time we and Duke work with students to deliver by reminding campus’s manifold communities of their singular identity and intertwined fates.

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