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At last: A "Duke Scandal" we didn't quite waste

There is no such thing as dialogue at Duke University. There exist only monologues in parallel.

Consider the response to the Editorial Board’s piece on AIPAC. The Board stepped on one of the more obvious rakes in the commentariat’s backyard: addressing a geopolitical gordian knot in 800 to 1,000 words and assuming you’ve contextualized everything there is to contextualize is hardly prudent. At risk of my own overgeneralization, the Board’s refrain was “settler colonialism”—a term they never bothered to define. 

This can mean one of two things. Hopefully, it is a response to opinions such as that of Danny Danon, Israel’s representative at the UN vote on Resolution 2334 (2016) against settlements, that denying Israel’s claim to territory beyond its own borders is denying Israel’s right to exist. How can denying Palestinian land to Israel infringe on Israel’s right to exist, unless it is assumed that there is no Palestinian land but only Israeli land—that there is no Palestinian right to exist?

However, the Board was not clear enough. They compared Israeli “settler colonialism” to American “settler colonialism”—an implication being that someone’s land was taken and the current occupants have no claim to that land. Throw “Zionist” in the mix, as the Board did, and members of a people whose cultural memory includes centuries of pogroms, and the Holocaust, had ample cause to believe the worst. So far as the piece seemed to stray into anti-Semitism, that far did five separate responses criticize it. 

This exchange was many things. It was also the closest we as a community have come to actual dialogue in a very long time. Consider the theme in some responses. The line separating valid criticism and anti-Semitism, writes Doron Ezickson of the Anti-Defamation League,  is crossed just in case “Israel’s fundamental legitimacy as a Jewish state on the historic home of the Jewish people is denied.” 

We were so close to dialogue. The Editorial Board should have responded and cleaned up its definitional quagmire. Then we could have further concretized the line between principled criticism and prejudice. We could have worked from mutual understanding to constructive progress. 

But this did not happen. This did not become a dialogue. This remained monologues in parallel. When I say that we “waste” scandals, I mean that we fail to make a bad thing as little bad as we can. We fail to redeem the one thing we could: a better understanding of who we are, and who we want to be, as a community. 

It is not enough to know who we are not. We must know who we are. It is not enough to know what we reject. We must know what we dream of. This time, we came very close to redeeming that one good thing. We recognized what was problematic. We defined the issue to discuss.

But this is the exception, not the rule. We are content to recognize the problem and consider our work to be over. 

In the wake of each new hate and bias incident, which further marginalize the already-marginalized members of our community, we call for a hate and bias policy. I cannot number the columns I have read that are 700 words proclaiming a problem, 100 words demanding a solution, and no exploration of what that solution looks like. How does that help the victims, exactly?

Consider the letter and petition printed on Monday in support of the Durham-Orange Light Rail. A smattering of student groups and a laundry list of faculty pressed President Price to do X for reason Y. But how many of these have actually met with the President? Or met with local stakeholders in this process? Or made a good-faith effort to establish dialogue instead of shouting their moral position into the ether and expecting someone else to realize it?

We can’t even have a proper discussion on housing reform. Hardly scandalous, yet hard to talk about. We shouldn’t be surprised that change does not happen when our discourse never passes the one side shouting, “It’s broken,” and the other shouting back, “It isn’t.”

When a strong community has a disagreement, they come together and work through it. We say our piece and leave. We the Undersigned decide Our Position, give our chests an emphatic thump, throw our demands onto some webpage or other, and wait for the person we address to bend. Rarely do we make a continued mutual engagement of constructive challenges and responses.

Is this the Duke Difference? We scrounge up the ever-ballooning cost of tuition to let someone else do our thinking for us? We are really so able to confuse one unanswered statement with a meaningful contribution to an ongoing discussion?

We should not confuse the performance of outrage with the construction of something better. While that is not what happened this last week, it is what happens most other weeks.

If we want to build a stronger community, we begin by building a stronger discourse. Do not be content with what I am against. Find out what I am for. If you disagree with someone, challenge them. Understand why you disagree. Stretch your conversations to something of greater moment than how hard that midterm was. Let iron sharpen iron and avail yourself of all that Duke diversity you came here to experience. Will we have to engage with people whom we find distasteful? Yes. Either we bring them to better views or leave them to ferment in their resentment—and then, they shall do worse than words and words will not stop them. Should the burden of this engagement rest on those already marginalized? Absolutely not. It is time for Duke’s “allies” to see some action. If it is a problem in this community, is is absolutely your problem.

This piece began with a discussion of a problem in the Holy Land. It ends with a cautionary tale from the Scripture which all claimants to the Holy Land share. The Tower of Babel, where one people are rent into many by their inability to understand one another, is a story about many things. One of these is how language can divide. Unless we understand each other, unless we communicate and resolve our disagreements, unless we take responsibility for the reality of discourse instead of the pretense of dialogue, we will never be all that we can. We move forward together or not at all. When next there is a problem, let’s actually talk about it.

Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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