Disagreement and Discourse

When the Editorial Board met to plan and discuss this week’s editorial, our conversation swerved off track due to concerns over the deep personal significance of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the most significant current event in the news, and questions of how to engage in that discussion while maintaining the level of respectful and constructive dialogue we wanted. Some editors had family in Israel, others wanted to divest from Israel completely, some felt the issue was too emotional to address, some knew too little to speak on the issue, and others felt that it simply wasn’t the place of The Student to comment on the issue. We danced around the issue for the rest of the meeting, ultimately talking more about how to have conversations than the subject matter itself.

By standard metrics, the 100-minute conversation that the Editorial Board had on Monday night would be considered fruitless. We began with a single question and failed to find the type of consensus that has characterized our past few editorial meetings. Some of us may have even left more confused than before the discussion began. What held us back?

Within the classrooms of this college, we are urged to disagree where disagreement is due — in facilitated class discussions, prompted term papers and scholarly critique. But outside of class, without facilitation, disagreement is often more personal. Removed from the academic constraints that keep us comfortable, disagreement can touch on the way you view others’ and your own identity.  

Discussions like these are thus best conducted one-on-one. You can find easy areas of common ground, address people’s concerns as they arise and ultimately come to a much deeper understanding of where someone stands. 

In larger settings, like on our campus or even in our editorial board, nuance is harder to find. We’re forced to make assumptions about where other people stand because we can’t ask every question we want when we have it. Disagreement feels more dangerous because you can assume the worst about someone or have them assume the worst about you — leading to the type of self-censorship that makes serious conversations unproductive.

Even so, these conversations are easiest to have within the safety of a community like the college, where students know one another, interact every day and are used to the personally distanced nature of academic disagreement.

But with another class graduating, it is necessary to acknowledge that the value of these conversations extend far beyond the boundaries of our college. In the broader world, there is rarely the same type of discussion facilitation we see in classrooms or the shared ground we all hold in our status as Amherst students. Honing the skills that allow us to navigate these difficulties is an ongoing and necessary project. It is not just a pursuit to take place within the walls of this college. We urge Amherst students to take on and embrace this project.

A willingness to engage in difficult conversations and confront rather than avoid uncomfortable disagreement is the only way for students to take the college’s mission forward and truly effect change in the broader world. We hope that once Amherst students exit the graduation stage, they will keep the necessity of disagreement in mind as they navigate the complexity of life outside of Amherst and continue doing the work to make the world a better place.