Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Repairing the Tattered Marketplace of Ideas

Repairing the Tattered Marketplace of Ideas

Last week, a cluster of posters appeared along two of the principal streets that run through our campus. The signs with no elaboration read, “It’s okay to be white.”

Crafted to seem innocuous, the statement first appeared as a counterpoint to “Black Lives Matter.” It is a phrase that has become associated with sympathy for and the indirect recruitment efforts of some white supremacist groups

This is the fourth year that these posters have appeared at a wide variety of colleges. Although the context of the message is in tension with the University’s values of inclusion, that is not why they were taken down. The signs were summarily removed because they did not comply with our posting policies. We were not censoring free speech; we took down posters placed on private property without permission.

Later in the day, I sent an email to campus to inform the community about what had transpired, and that we were concerned about the intentions of those who put up the signs. I rarely send an alert to the campus indicating that an offensive graffito has been found, because those messages magnify the audience for hateful imagery. This instance proved no different.

Friday’s story was covered by a local news outlet, then picked up by a second one, provoking a swirl of divisive commentary—an outcome surely hoped for by those who posted the signs. The bent of the majority of comments made to the story has been troubling. Few commenters probably made it past the headline or took the time to understand the message’s deceptive meaning before adding their own vitriol.

I frequently state that inclusion efforts may be the most important work we undertake in higher education. The next generation of community leaders need to be better prepared to level the playing field for all our neighbors than we were.

Of course, it is okay to be white, to be black, to be straight, to be gay, to be any of the innumerable things that make up the richness of humanity, but it is also critically important to be aware of subtext. We need to help our students recognize when language is being used to manipulate values and behavior, and we need to help them to develop those skills for life after college.

It is just as important for students to learn how to navigate difficult conversations and how to communicate about difference effectively. Susquehanna recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the project, Promoting Civil Discourse in a Polarizing World, which is intended to do just that

Every day, we see our social fabric fraying as our collective communication becomes ever more fractious, as digital malefactors prey on the gullible, and as our ability to bestow grace on others continues to ebb. Let us hope that today’s students can help repair our tattered marketplace of ideas.

Welcome!

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