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Learn Some History

Focussing on the positive with regard to the College’s Diversity Initiatives, I am trying to make a few minor suggestions. Thanks to Jim Kolesar ’74 for including the first on an Eph Style Guide. Here is the second.

There should be chapter in the report, perhaps in the Context section, about the history of diversity issues at Williams. This would be wonderfully informative as well as serving to set the stage for the analysis that follows. It is very hard to have an informed opinion about the issues involved with diversity unless one knows the history. Although it is always interesting to hear about older controversies — the exclusion of certain types of Ephs from fraternities in the 1950’s, say — I am much more interested in the last 35 years or so.

So, give us 5 or so pages about every significant diversity-related event from the takeover of Hopkins Hall through Nigaleian. Recent examples from what should be included would be Barnard/VISTA, the KKK cookout and Madcow. Quote the original materials. Reprint articles from the Record, both news and opinion pieces. Interview the participants. Tell us the history.

Williams can’t move forward unless it knows where it has been.

UPDATE: The suggestions section of the Diversity Initiatives site is surprisingly good. One Eph notes that “Robert Gaudino, widely regarded as one of the best educators ever to be part of the Williams faculty, published a paper on “Uncomfortable Education,” explaining why he always kept students off-balance . . . ” It would be good if the report included prominent essays like this from Williams’s history.

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#1 Comment By Mike On January 15, 2005 @ 2:12 pm

David: I bit my tongue the first time you suggested the “Eph style guide” in the Record, but now I can’t contain myself. Are you sure the piece wasn’t a parody you wrote and meant to submit to the Mad Cow?

#2 Comment By David On January 15, 2005 @ 6:20 pm

No parody. Communities have standards. Williams would function with less friction if its standards were writtem down. A speech guide — not code — would help. You don’t agree?

#3 Comment By Mike On January 16, 2005 @ 4:03 pm

a) How would you write said Style Guide? Would we have a weekend long conference where everybody just yells out as many objectionable phrases as they can come up with and JoAnn Muir takes the minutes?

b) What happens if somebody uses a phrases that is objectionable, but the Eph Style Guide Constitutional Convention forgot to include. Would the offended group lose its right to be offended because they hadn’t remembered that particular slur during the strategic planning session?

c) On a more serious note, can you think of one example where the offending party didn’t know that if such a guide existed the word they used would have been included? “Nigger” wasn’t used in a faculty meeting because the offending party didn’t realize the word was offensive. The word is clearly at the very top of Williams’ current unofficial, not-written-down Style Guide. Having it formalized would not have changed any behavior. Rather, in a moment of passion, offensive language was used. You’re not going to legislate it away by coming up with a guide.

#4 Comment By David On January 16, 2005 @ 6:24 pm

a) I would have some group (maybe CUL, maybe someone else) write a draft, post it, solicit comments, post another draft, have a public meeting and then iterate a few times.

b) The Guide might be updated each year. Again, the goal is not a listing all objectionable words under the sun. In fact, I would require that such a listing be restricted in some way. Perhaps there might only be X such words or Y pages worth of discussion. Any proposal about something to add would be required to specify what is to be taken out. Making choices, judgments about what items are most important, is a part of the process.

c) The KKK cookout is an example of something that an Eph Style Guide might have prevented. By all accounts, this was an innocent mistake. The person who wrote it, while they might have known what the initials KKK meant, did not realize the visceral reaction that it would engender in many Ephs. I agree that Nigaleian would not have been prevented by such a Guide.

Note also that the Guide works on both ends of the ideological spectrum. It is not just about words to avoid. It is about acknowledging ahead of time that some commentary — like that used by Dave Barnard in 2003 — is perfectly legitimate.

#5 Comment By David R. On January 17, 2005 @ 11:43 am

I don’t know how many times we have to go through this, or why I even bother, but Dave Barnard’s commentary, in the way it was presented, was not perfectly legitimate. Maybe if he had gone about it in a more SINCERE way, as opposed to speaking on North Adams radio about SNL and how it relates to Latino baseball players, it would have been perfectly legitimate. Until then, his words were still inappropriate in an academic setting.

#6 Comment By David On January 17, 2005 @ 1:40 pm

As far as I am concerned, we have never really gone “through this” even once, much less several times. Although I have written my fair share on the topic and although we began to discuss it last spring, we did not make much progress because the conversation petered out.

So, in the spirit of the Diversity Initiatives, I say we restart the conversation, either here or, at your discretion, in a new thread.

My assertions: It is clearly OK, even praise-worthy, for:

1) A member of the faculty to go on to a local radio station and discuss their area of expertise.

2) A faculty member to offer his honest opinions on controversial topics.

3) Any Eph, faculty member or not, to speculate on the connection between culture and individual behavior.

Therefore, it was fine for Barnard to speculate that Latino culture played a role in the specific incidents under discussion.

For now, let us leave aside what happened after the radio program aired.

What about Barnard’s actions on the radio show did you fine unacceptable? If possible, could you provide an analogy to what would be similarly unacceptable if it were an economics or political science professor discussing something Latino related?

#7 Comment By Jamie O’Leary On January 17, 2005 @ 2:02 pm

Moreover, why would you even want an “Eph Style Guide”?

First, words are only half the battle. I think George Carlin proved the point with his comedy routine about the words you can’t say on television–whether you bleep it out or say it outright, the offense is still there:

“There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them that you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is. 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous, to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you seven. Bad words. That’s what they told us they were, remember? ‘That’s a bad word.’ ‘Awwww.’ There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions.”

Call it a guide, call it a code, call it censorship, it all has the same effect, and despite the historical existence of such guides or censors, it never takes people long to figure out how to get around the naughty words. Furthermore, proscribing speech does not change sentiment or raise awareness. For all the words that make the “Eph’s Guide to the Politically Correct” (or whatever you want to call it), there are five hundred more ways to say the same thing in different language. It’s futile.

The deeper problems that challenge true diversity on campus will not be solved simply by talking nicely, and I think we can all agree that the problems we propose to deal with–even in the area of speech alone–are far more subtle than the proposed Eph Style Guide could ever grasp.

Second, more importantly, even though you may have suggested the guide as a single part of a larger project, I feel that this particular route may even be detrimental.

It is my contention that the problems of diversity at Williams stem partly from a lack of talk. When diversity issues are discussed on campus, it’s usually in an explosion. I may be overstepping my bounds here, but I think that the cookout incident last year did not become so drastic because it was necessarily more offensive than other things that have happened. In fact, friends have told me about much more offensive things that happened to them, but expressed frustration that they had nowhere to express their particular feelings. In other words, the cookout provided a rare opportunity for discussion, and the subterranean sentiment (that was really there all along) made its presence felt as an avalanche when the news broke.

What we need, then, is more talk–but talk of a specific kind. We need “safe” talk. It should be a forum where people will be free to express themselves without consequence, a discussion where there will be no proactive measures taken, where we will not only learn how to express ourselves but to listen to what others have to say. Proactive is for the diversity committee, the rest of us need to vent and absorb.

Living under a rule book, a guide, an Emily Post for the 21st Century will only continue to give the illusion that we have no problems in the diversity area when if fact, like every other school, we have our fair share; it would continue to keep subversive sentiment underground when, if ever we wanted it to rear its ugly head, it would be here and now when the college has put forward a determined effort to fight it.

#8 Comment By David On January 17, 2005 @ 3:11 pm

I am not sure if I have explained myself well enough to Jamie.

1) I am not claiming that an Eph Style Guide would solve all problems. I am claiming that, on the margin, it might help.

2) I am claiming that it is unreasonable to expect members of the Williams community — especially the dozens that grew up outside the US — to know what is and is not offensive on Day 1 in Williamstown. Someone needs to help them out. If not via an Eph Style Guide, then how?

3) I am claiming that it is possible that the existence of a guide would have prevented the KKK cook-out incident. I am making the causal claim that, if there had existed such a guide, the flyer-writer would not have used those initials as she did. If you disagree with this claim, please explain why.

4) I am assuming that the prevention of the KKK cook-out flyer would have been a good thing. Less tension is better than more tension. Perhaps you disagree, please explain why.

For the most part, I couldn’t agree more on the need for “more talk.” But I see no reason for believing that an Eph Style Guide would decrease the amount of talk.

#9 Comment By Jeff Zeeman On January 17, 2005 @ 3:22 pm

First of all, if this style guide ever does come to pass, please, please, please, nominate me for the committee. I can think of few things more entertaining than debating for hours whether the use of “deuschbag” should, or should not, be discouraged on the Williams campus. (I’m voting not, simply because then Jon Stewart couldn’t be invited to campus to invoke his brilliant nickname for Public Idiot Novak, “deuschbag of liberty”).

More importantly, I’d say that just about any speech surpressed equals an opportunity lost. The most racist speaker I can recall appearing at Williams was Conrad Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, who is pretty much anti-everything except for black, male Muslims. He is basically the equivalent of bringing David Duke to campus, except that jews rather than blacks are his primary target of hate (thus, somehow, it’s considered more acceptable). But you know what? Even though I was totally opposed to him coming to campus, I was really glad at the end of the day to have the opportunity to gain insight into views that are apparently shared by a significant portion of society (not to mention, as much as I hate to say it, the guy was a great speaker).

Williams is enough of a bubble as it is. People need to be a little more think-skinned when it comes to 99 percent of the speech that is found to be offensive. Because you’re going to encounter it in the real world, if not at Williams, so you might as well get familiar with what is out there. Moreover, there are very, very, very few members of the Williams community who hold outright racist views (probably more who hold homophobic views, but compared to society at large, still a miniscule number). Why create a ridiculous code of conduct to account for that tiny, tiny minority who aren’t going to give a damn in any event? Finally, I would much rather know that nasty or racist or sexist thoughts are out there, and have them confronted, then just allow them to simmer.

For instance, consider DK’s journalistic coup d’etat, the Laleilian incident. Say, hypothetically, she had read a style guide, and that (rather than, say, common sense) had somehow convinced her to not use the word “nigger” during a department meeting. Would Williams, as a community, be better off? I don’t think so. I’d rather know what people are thinking, out in the open, then have views suppressed out of fear of speaking out. I think Williams is PC enough as it is based solely on social pressure and liberal guilt, the last thing the campus needs is an explict guide directing us what not to say.

In terms of the diversity initiative, I haven’t really read through it yet, but I will say that I think the Questbridge partnership is the best thing Williams has done for true campus diversity since I have been associated with the institution. Kudos to admissions and I really hope the number of students admitted via that route continues to grow.

#10 Comment By David On January 17, 2005 @ 3:39 pm

Jeff writes “the last thing the campus needs is an explict guide directing us what not to say.”

Again, I must be an extremely poor writer since no one seems to understand what I am trying to say. (Read: Did you read the gosh-darn proposal Zeeman!?!)

An Eph Style Guide would not direct anybody about what they can and can not say! It would educate someone who might not know better that, for example, using the initials KKK in a light-hearted manner will piss off a lot of people. All Ephs would still be free to do so. Freedom of speech does not stop at the top of Spring Street.

But those who do not seek to give offense would be better able to avoid doing so with such a guide. Why is that so problematic?

#11 Comment By Mike On January 17, 2005 @ 4:27 pm

My only contention is it would have no impact on campus at all. People do stupid things and the fact that KKK is listed in a Style Guide would not prevent stupid things. Incidentally, I’ve always found the contention that some people on campus didn’t realize how offensive having a “KKK party” was to be completely ludicrous. It’s like Prince Harry and his Nazi uniform. I’ll assume it wasn’t meant maliciously, but just indicates a complete and utter idiocy.

#12 Comment By Aidan On January 17, 2005 @ 4:39 pm

I knew a kid named Deutschbag. I think it was applied to the kid because his last named sounded kinda german and he was, in all honestly, a douchebag. Coinage, gotta love it.

#13 Comment By Jamie O’Leary On January 17, 2005 @ 6:32 pm

Wow. What an interesting mode of argument. I am loathe to get into an online squabble, but David, I feel you’ve misrepresented my original post (in fact, when you explain yourself to me, you use some of the same language I did). I’ll reply by cut and paste–annoying I know, but I’ve already said almost all I intend to on the subject.

You wrote:

“1) I am not claiming that an Eph Style Guide would solve all problems. I am claiming that, on the margin, it might help.”

However, I had posted:

“[M]ore importantly, even though you may have suggested the guide as a single part of a larger project, I feel that this particular route may even be detrimental.”

Then you wrote:

“2) I am claiming that it is unreasonable to expect members of the Williams community — especially the dozens that grew up outside the US — to know what is and is not offensive on Day 1 in Williamstown. Someone needs to help them out. If not via an Eph Style Guide, then how?”

I had written:

“What we need, then, is more talk–but talk of a specific kind. We need ‘safe’ talk. It should be a forum where people will be free to express themselves without consequence, a discussion where there will be no proactive measures taken, where we will not only learn how to express ourselves but to listen to what others have to say.”

Also, you can’t possibly expect a “Style Guide” to help someone on Day 1 when they arrive in Williamstown–there are far more racist, sexist, and homophobic incidents than the ones you’ve cited using mere naughty words. As I said:

“For all the words that make the ‘Eph’s Guide to the Politically Correct’ (or whatever you want to call it), there are five hundred more ways to say the same thing in different language. It’s futile.”

Next comes:

“3) I am claiming that it is possible that the existence of a guide would have prevented the KKK cook-out incident. I am making the causal claim that, if there had existed such a guide, the flyer-writer would not have used those initials as she did. If you disagree with this claim, please explain why.”

You’re right, here… probably, for whatever it’s worth. Score 1 for the style guide and at least 500 for the other racist, homophobic, and sexist incidents that didn’t involve an acronym or a naughty word. But see below (maybe it WAS good that this happened, after all):

“4) I am assuming that the prevention of the KKK cook-out flyer would have been a good thing. Less tension is better than more tension. Perhaps you disagree, please explain why.”

It’s hard to argue in retrospect like that–it happened; it was very sad for those involved. The flaw in your argument is that you assume that if there had been no cookout incident that there would be less tension. I explained this:

“I may be overstepping my bounds here, but I think that the cookout incident last year did not become so drastic because it was necessarily more offensive than other things that have happened. In fact, friends have told me about much more offensive things that happened to them, but expressed frustration that they had nowhere to express their particular feelings. In other words, the cookout provided a rare opportunity for discussion, and the subterranean sentiment (that was really there all along) made its presence felt as an avalanche when the news broke.”

The tension is always there, and a style guide won’t get rid of it. We need to have more opportunities to vent it. If the release valve for that pressure can grow in part from the flyer, though, then perhaps it was partially a good thing–in retrospect, of course–that there was such an incident on campus. (Although, frankly, arguing good and bad seems rather silly.) Here’s what I said (and I stand by it):

“Living under a rule book, a guide, an Emily Post for the 21st Century will only continue to give the illusion that we have no problems in the diversity area when if fact, like every other school, we have our fair share; it would continue to keep subversive sentiment underground when, if ever we wanted it to rear its ugly head, it would be here and now when the college has put forward a determined effort to fight it.”

Sorry to take up so much space; I think I’ve said all I care to.

#14 Comment By Eislerman On January 17, 2005 @ 8:21 pm

Aidan, don’t be bitter just because Deutsch could buy and sell you like a rusty 1981 Honda station wagon.

#15 Comment By Loweeel On January 18, 2005 @ 1:08 am

I miss Peter :-(. And Aidan, he was not a “Deutschbag” – he’s a fine upstanding human being (and no, not just because he and I have very similar political beliefs), though he really was very similar to a brunet, adult version of Tweak from South Park.

He’s mellowed since he started working, believe it or not.

#16 Comment By Eislerman On January 18, 2005 @ 6:08 am

Actually, I think the period of Pete’s increased mellowness can be traced to his stint at the LSE junior year. We were in London together for a couple of weeks, and he seemed to be having an amazingly enjoyable time. Didn’t prevent him from performing ridonculously senior year, but still…

#17 Comment By Aidan On January 18, 2005 @ 9:10 am

I didn’t mean any disrespect to Deustschbag, if anything, I believe it was a term of affection. Heck, I lived with the kid…