Discourse / Editorials / April 10, 2008

Outrageous civility

This year has seen a remarkable student uproar about the conditions at Knox. We have finally found our voices and we are using them to discuss a wide variety of issues on campus from Campus Safety to Greek life. There are a lot of problems here, and it’s damn well time people talk about them instead of sweeping them under the rug.

One byproduct of this discussion, however, has been that many of us are less polite. People vandalize street banners and put up provocative signs; faculty and students nearly come to blows over the Greek system; people like me use the word “fascist” in Discourse articles. As the volume of discussion has increased, we have seen, perhaps not surprisingly, more outliers on the decorum bell curve.

But some, most recently the Student Life Committee (SLC), are alarmed. At their meeting last Tuesday, SLC decided to add to its agenda a discussion on the “problem of campus civility.” Specifically, they hearken back to those halcyon days when students didn’t put up posters in anger at the actions (or inactions) of the administration (or faculty, or Student Senate). They wonder if we can quell uncivil discussion at Knox by, oh I don’t know, banning all anonymous posters from campus.

The implications of this are staggering, and nobody should ignore them. First, to ban anonymous posters, one has to determine what is required for it not to be “anonymous.” Does there have to be a student name or group posted at the bottom? And if so, it would of course be necessary to determine which students and groups are permitted to post on campus. And who would determine the list of “accepted groups?” Likely the administration, perhaps with the assistance of our erstwhile Student Senate. Indeed, it may well be that all posters and circulars would have to be specifically pre-approved, to avoid any “undesirable” postings. This proposal curtails free speech by limiting the participants in posting and circulating to those few the administration approves, likely cutting out everyone who has found ample reason to criticize the administration and Student Senate this year.

Not only does this increase bureaucracy and deal a body blow to free speech, but it also does nothing to make campus more civil. Instead it papers over the problem so that those in power, on SLC and elsewhere, don’t have to cover their eyes to ignore rapidly increasing dissatisfaction with conditions here. The idea looks to tackle a mere symptom of a much larger and more pernicious problem at this college. Bound up in the banner-vandals’ and the we-will-riot-posters’ pithy complaints is the underlying message that we students have precious few avenues into campus discussions.

The token representation we have has largely been gobbled up in the current Senate leadership’s unprecedented and deplorable centralization of power. Ironically, at the same meeting where this idea was proposed, I and other meeting attendees not on SLC were forced to wait outside for 45 minutes while SLC discussed issues that SLC felt “awkward” discussing in front of the public and press. It does not ring true to discriminate against community discussion outside of the much-beloved “proper channels” when those channels fold up like sea anemones every time we try to touch them.

If SLC and others are truly concerned with the tone of campus discussion, then the proper solution is to promote, not restrict, opportunities for discussion. Posters or no posters, the real problems won’t simply go away on their own. This campus needs free, fair, and frequent forums for discussion — not merely as some purpose-built, suggestion-box-like afterthought but as a paradigm shift toward transparency at every level of the student, faculty, and administrative committee and meeting systems. We must replace the “executive sessions” and cloak-and-dagger campus politics with published minutes, open meetings, and an orientation toward making community participation convenient and productive for the community at large.

Without these steps, we can expect a continued degradation of the legitimacy of college governance and the civility of campus discussion; this can only be expected when large numbers of us see no alternative but to bypass and dismantle the governing structures that constrict free speech and true dialogue.

The next Student Life Committee meeting will be Tuesday, April 15, at 4:00 PM in Ferris Lounge.

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Brian Camozzi

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