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Monday, May 16, 2022

Toward Community Healing

Over the past week, there has been a slew of media coverage of the protest and surrounding events that occurred on Thursday, March 2nd in response to Charles Murray [CM] arriving on campus to give a lecture. There are many narratives circulating within campus networks as well as more broadly in the national media. I would like to add a perspective that so far has gone unaddressed by the majority of the coverage. I hope to allow people to think about protest and these specific events on campus by introducing the idea of rhetorical violence and emphasizing the importance of empathy in responding to (rhetorical) violence.

Developing empathy as a practiced skill can help us move forward toward community healing.

In her most recent email, President Patton said that colleges and universities should uphold the right to free speech, even “unpopular speech.” This is upsetting given the ongoing reality of systemic oppression, consisting of racist immigration policy targeting people from predominantly Muslim countries, attacks on the Affordable Care Act that has increased access to health care, increasingly militarized police forces and government sponsored destruction of native lands for private profit.

These are facts of many people’s daily lives, both on and off campus and are openly supported in the public arena. In contrast to the idea put forth by President Patton that these ideas do not have platforms, these are spread in our daily news and are widely present in our government, especially under our new president. Creating a platform at Middlebury for similar kinds of racism and oppressive ideologies impedes student’s abilities to be academically successful and generally whole people within our community because it welcomes in rhetorical violence and emotional distress.

We as a community can act differently and find ways to make Middlebury a place of healing for the traumas that have been inflicted by institutional racism, but instead chose, and continue to choose, to deny these legacies of violence. This happens in many ways, one of which is the administrative recognition that student emotions are broader than anger and frustration. There is confusion, hurt, betrayal and a whole host of other emotions that are triggered by the kind of violent rhetoric that Charles Murray published. If we are going to heal, we need to find spaces where these emotions can be validated and accounted for, not just in a cordoned off protest area while dehumanizing rhetoric is spouted from a stage.

In his recent post about the events that took place last Thursday, CM acknowledges that he has been discredited as a white supremacist, racist, sexist, eugenicist and white nationalist at Middlebury and by many prominent scholars. He does nothing to address the fact that these are not labels that are used arbitrarily. They are used to designate someone who perpetuates the ongoing trauma of racism, sexism and eugenics that shape all of our lives in different ways. None of us are free of the histories of violence that have shaped racism and sexism. Some are forced to bear that trauma in daily life in the small slights and large exclusions that people from marginalized backgrounds experience. Others of us are able to bear that trauma in a different way: the privilege to tell others that their pain is not real.

When we think about community healing and a path forward, it is important that we take into account the ways that some members of our community, namely minority students, are told that their experiences are not real. To do so would look like an affirmative statement by the administration, acknowledging the pain that rhetorical violence such as Murray’s can trigger, and providing avenues for healing that do not first require members of our community to be retraumatized by having their existence on campus put into question. Additionally, we need to do some work as students to think about the ways in which we have denied each other empathy, particularly for our peers who experience various forms of marginalization. Instead of denial, we can build tools of empathy by learning about our histories of violence and by practicing connecting with, listening to or simply validating the experiences of our peers when they are different from our own experiences.

For all of the reasons above, I stand in support of the protestors from Thursday night as they expressed the communal pain that bringing a speaker like Charles Murray to campus creates. It is not rhetorically resilient for students of color to be forced to experience another example of white supremacy and racism on campus. I stand with students of color on our campus who participated in the protest and also those who did not. I have seen so many students from marginalized backgrounds exhibiting rhetorical resilience in their daily lives, while at the same time seeing that privileged students so often lack the empathy to honestly and openly engage with those they perceive to be different from them.

Examining how we move forward can be a learning opportunity for those of us who do not experience oppression at Middlebury. Empathy is a skill, not an inherent quality, and I would ask that students with various kinds of privilege take some time to think about what empathy truly looks like, and what they might be able to learn about themselves and about other students on campus when they practice empathy.