Learning and Unlearning.

We all came here to learn. Whether it is your first year here or, like me, the 27th, we have all come, and stayed, because Denison presents an incredible environment in which to learn.

Right now, though, we may first need to un-learn, and then learn in new ways.

We’ve got a situation where some awful things were overheard outside a recent party—racist, homophobic, misogynistic slurs. Despite initiating an immediate investigation, we don’t actually know who said what to whom. It happened, but we have no known offender, and we have no individually identifiable “harmed party.”

But the incident indirectly hurt many and has prompted lots of conversations. Within those, there’s been anecdotal reporting of other ugly incidents—epithets tossed out a window on a Saturday night, shouted out a car speeding by, scrawled on a white board, posted on Yik Yak. In other words, the commonness of this experience has been shared.

Throughout our lives, most of us “learn” to walk on by. The situation is “too stupid” to warrant a response, or it targets somebody else, or it would be social suicide to confront it, or it would be vaguely impolite to turn on the speaker and say, “What did you just say?” I’ve probably thought each of those thoughts in some instance, so I can testify to having a gut reaction and actively choosing to ignore it.

I think we make that choice mostly out of fear, and then the fear becomes a habit. And the habit, widely learned, confers social power, and then permits that power’s continuing abuse. It hurts us and diminishes our community. Un-learning the habit is hard. It requires the presence of mind to observe what is happening, and the fortitude to turn around and “speak truth to power.” That’s really what makes bystander intervention so hard: It requires overcoming the larger social order as a lone individual.

That’s more than most people can do, so when, for example, people tell me that we should just tell some category of people to knock off the bad behavior, or when bystander intervention is offered as the panacea, those seem important but insufficient.

I’d rather we try to generate a “public agreement” about what we stand for as Denisonians, and also what we won’t abide, what will outrage us. The ancient Greeks taught us that in order for a civil society to function, its members must share a collective understanding of expectations and standards of behavior. That’s what enables individuals to speak up.

Right now, in all honesty, we are leaving the heavy lifting to others. The BSU and Outlook, and the presidents of the fraternities and sororities, have shown courage. They’ve risked backlash to assert a moral position. They really need the rest of us to do the same. Actually, we need the rest of us to do the same, and we have to do this together in order for our conviction to be actionable by individuals.

The question is, how will we find and speak with a collective voice? This strikes me as the most daunting, but also the most important, question we can pose for ourselves. If we want our community to be different than it has ever been, we’ll have to do things we have never done. When Dr. Weinberg talks about “using the campus as a design studio,” this is what he is talking about.

Can we be moved by the pain of this moment to design a remedy? Can we use all the great foundations of our leadership development programs, the work of Sustained Dialogue, the knowledge from classes across the curriculum, to think in new ways? Can we move from a campus that is diverse to one that embraces diversity as a core value and a treasured strength? If we can, we’ll not only make Denison better but we’ll be part of generating a process that we can take into the world beyond the hill to make it better as well.

I’ve never experienced a year like this one, where we’ve been talking from the start about how we want to be. We’ve been challenged by President Weinberg to neither ignore nor resist controversy, but to embrace it with civility and use it to learn. This is the moment he anticipated. We have so many great leaders on our campus. What ideas are others mulling over, and how can we come together in productive and forward-looking ways?

Laurel Kennedy