Amherst Does Not Play With Others

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Did anyone else smell the vitriol on campus this week? Among newspaper readership, it was most evident in Dan Diner’s article on secularization and Andrew Kaake’s column on abortion. Their recent newspaper submissions have prompted an outpouring of student responses. Infuriated and affirmed readers alike shared their honest concerns, sometimes boldly proclaiming their identity, but more often remaining under the cloak of anonymity. It bled into our sentiments about AAS and the spring concert, and also resulted in the distribution of hurtful pamphlets that attempted to divide the campus into partygoers and non-partygoers. These incidents reflect how we handle on-campus conflicts as a whole.

It is so much easier to bare our souls, however ugly, in a virtual sphere where we can take refuge behind a screen, instead of talking face to face or in a public forum. Where are the commentators and angry online forum participants at the school’s open discussions and speaker events regarding these very topics? In this regard, I cannot count myself among the innocent.

Kaake’s article drew much more negative outcry than Diner’s did. Students were very quick to make massive leaps in logic to make assumptions about Kaake’s identity, such as privilege, personal history and socioeconomic class. While Andrew and I do not always see eye to eye, I have great respect for him, and as a friend who knows his story, I can say that many of the assumptions made about him were grossly ignorant and hateful. Students took comments to another low by urging fellow readers to “stick it to Andrew Kaake.”

These are not intelligent, dignified responses — these are immature personal attacks, and they reveal a shameful trend on our campus to poke our heads out of the sand only when it is convenient. In addition to the religiously-charged newspaper submissions, the pamphlets encouraged an even greater rift between student populations than what already existed, and the lack of discussion between AAS and students resulted in bitterness and misunderstanding.

I would highlight similar vitriolic attacks on Diner, but I found none. The disagreements were civil, and they were very few in number.

Perhaps Diner’s article struck a nerve with students who do have religious convictions (myself included) because it pitted one belief system against another. Diner’s belief system is unnamed, but he seems to have unwavering faith in Science-with-a-capital-S (although he makes no efforts to clarify whose science it is, which funds, grants and corporations support it, what agenda it has and whom it is serving). Such faith is quite similar to the devotion expressed by the religious. But science is merely a tool, not an entity worthy of our love or devotion, and it is a tool that can be used to unforeseeable, sometimes horribly destructive ends.

While we have made advances in fighting and preventing cancer, we also have greater exposure to carcinogens than we have ever had and perhaps higher cancer rates, partly because of the great 20th-century lie, “Better living through chemistry.” While we claim to have a greater understanding of what causes asthma, we now also have many more causes of asthma. Our discoveries and inventions create new problems as we use them to solve others. We know so much about sociological theory and community building exercises, but we still deal with poverty and social ills the way we always have: with fear, impatience and apathy.

I understand the arguments made by Diner because I once believed them myself, as a former atheist. I was certain that one could disrespect a person’s belief system while still respecting that person. But I was the first to ferociously defend my own belief system: atheism and the scientifically-uninformed view that “science” as understood by a constrained, self-important, Western construction is the end-all-be-all deity. I immediately saw any attack on my beliefs as a strike against my personal well-being. I do believe that there is one truth. I do not espouse the self-defeating view that “all beliefs are equally valid,” as though refusing to wrestle with their complications makes the problems disappear. However, I do believe that civil, informed discussion is the only productive way to uncover the truth and to build an effective community on this campus.

In a class last semester, I had the opportunity to discuss a column I had written that was met with respectful disagreement from a classmate. It was not easy to discuss with my class the myriad of reasons why they disagreed with me. However, it was a much more civil and productive conversation than it would have been if it had been like the discussions online about Kaake and Diner’s pieces, the snickering from both sides about the anonymous pamphlets or the anger directed at the AAS.

I invite those who disagree with my views to please talk with me. Email me. Let’s get a meal together at Val. Invite me to a casual discussion or forum with you and others interested in talking. Let’s stop this immature slew of personal attacks and unproductive anger. I realize that the internet and the campus’ print media are curtains behind which people can feel safe speaking, but this presumed safety is often translated into hateful speech bordering on bullying and verbal abuse. The campus is already divided enough; there is no need to create new schisms or further cleave those that already exist.