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Monday, May 23, 2022

Reframing the Conversation

Undoubtedly, the last few weeks have been shaped by campus wide discourse surrounding race, power, language and freedom of speech. We at The Campus have engaged in personal reflection both about our role as a microphone for student voices and on how Middlebury can become more inclusive. We take this conversation, and our role in it, seriously and have welcomed the feedback and concerns that we have received.

This conversation is far from over. We as a community need to reflect and converse about acceptable standards of speech. This conversation is important, but it requires a level of respect and engagement that recently has not been met. We have resorted to insults on YikYak and other forms of social media that accuse and alienate members of this college without opening space for discussion or attempting to understand the other side.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks writes about “shame culture” developing on college campuses and among the millennial generation. In it he writes, “In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.” He goes on to claim that the “ultimate sin” today is to criticize a group’s morality and this is magnified by the prevalence of social media, in which “moral crusade spreads across campus, many students feel compelled to post in support of it on Facebook within minutes.”

While this shame culture is not unique to Middlebury, it is certainly present here. Controversial op-eds are shared at exceedingly high rates and student responses are often personal, attacking the individual instead of the argument. However, we don’t think we are going to push this conversation forward within the newsfeeds of Facebook and YikYak. This isn’t to imply that that the offended shouldn’t be able to respond, but that we can do so in a constructive manner. We can learn from one another, if we choose to hear each other.

Recently, Middbeat, Beyond the Green and The Campus met about the potential of having a town hall meeting about student journalism and speech standards. We are continuing to work to make this a reality and to proactively continue this conversation. Our guess is that when we start talking to each other, we may find that even the people whose ideas or decisions we had dismissed are hoping to achieve the same goals—a more inclusive, braver Middlebury.

Recently a friend described our tendency to “call someone out” when they have offended or overstepped. She suggested that we change that phrase to “calling someone in,” which instead of generating alienation, encourages an invitation to engage in challenging dialogue. While recognizing our individual privileges and our power to offend, this effort could be the first of many steps towards changing how we interact with one another.