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Provosts and purple prose: Critiquing ‘dialogue’

It’s hard to deny that Stanford has seen more activism on campus this year than in years past, prompted in part by the flood of major national and international events that have taken place over the past few months. In particular, Stanford students have engaged with the Black Lives Matter movementdivestment from companies complicit in the occupation of Palestine and numerous other issues that have led to increasing divides in the student body.

Provost John Etchemendy, for one, is “increasingly distressed” by these divides, claiming that Stanford students have “lost the ability to engage in true dialogue.” In a statement made during the April 16th Faculty Senate Meeting, the provost mentioned “Israel and Palestine, sexual assault and due process, investment in fossil fuels, marriage and gay rights, black lives [and] increasing disparities in wealth” as being issues that somehow prove that we Stanford students can no longer hold a civil conversation.

Many of these issues on campus are supported by a body of student activism, with student backgrounds often intersecting across identities and communities across campus. These activist communities, especially this year, have been under attack from writers published in The Daily, The Stanford Review and other news and media sources on and off campus. Yik Yak, the anonymous social media app, is rife with anti-activist sentiment from other Stanford students. The rhetoric of “dialogue,” then, seems curiously sanitized of all mention of activism at all.

When Etchemendy and others call for dialogue, their words bring to mind a conversation, a discussion, a sharing of ideas. More specifically, however, dialogue is often used to refer to a sharing of opinions, with the intent to arrive at an agreeable conclusion. A “successful” dialogue is one in which interacting persons leave feeling satisfied with the conclusion. Perhaps this is why activists are told that we fail at dialogue: Our struggles are not opinions; our conclusions are not meant to be “satisfying” for all parties.

The reality of the situation is that racism still exists. That sexism, transmisogyny, classism, ableism and other forms of oppression exist and thrive, and intersect in conflicting ways. Another reality of the situation is that for an alarming portion of the Stanford community, any word that ends in “-ism” is instantly viewed as a cue to look the other way. It is precisely the delusion that this campus is somehow the eye of the storm, somehow immune to the issues that affect the world outside the bubble, that fuels current hostility on campus — when activists bring up these issues, they bring up the uncomfortable realities of our society.

I am tired of people on campus granting legitimacy to bigotry by calling it an “opinion.”Only a century or two ago, black emancipation was an “opinion.” So was desegregation, women’s suffrage, anti-discrimination laws, the federal minimum wage and too many other reforms to name. All of these were fought for by generations of activists against strong opposition that accused them of dissent, divisiveness and inability to engage in dialogue. Sound familiar? Today, those activists of the past – the Rosa Parks, MLKs, Cesar Chavezs, Harvey Milks and Sylvia Riveras in our history – are given lip service in the same breath that insults today’s activism.

To be clear, I am not arguing that all students unanimously support the activists in their lives: critical opinions are always welcomed. But there is a problem on campus, and it isn’t “dialogue.” Marginalized communities have held teach-ins, educational events and workshops for the general community over the course of this year and for years and years past. Professors with a wealth of knowledge have office hours. Speakers regularly come to campus to speak on a variety of relevant issues.

I am tired of people accusing us of being unwilling to “engage in dialogue.” I am tired of the same people who ignore those emails in their inbox and invites on Facebook for events accusing our communities of being unwilling to “engage in dialogue.” How are we supposed to feel when every other day we must defend ourselves against ignorance, only to see empty rooms when we hold educational meetings? How are we supposed to feel when those who do not want to learn accuse us of refusing to teach them?

We have become used to the idea that no matter how many emails we send people in power, they will not listen. And yet, they are quick to make statements when their reputations are on the line. They are suddenly quick to invite students to “have a conversation,” knowing that the public eye is now on them. And once that dialogue begins, it tends to be left out on the shelf until it spoils, like the sexual assault activism that was ignored for nearly 15 years without a resolution.

Dialogue already exists on this campus. Resources are already available for those who want to learn. What this campus needs more of is not dialogue, but action. Not silence, but justice.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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