Reflections on a Year of Debate

A school year has almost passed us. Ask anyone to summarize the collective experience of students this year and they will place the unfolding of much public drama at the center of it. Pleasant memories dot our individual recollections, but painful ones sit squarely within those memories shared by most all of us.

There’s a sigh, a lingering pain, an upwelling of anger, a cynical roll of the eyes as students recalled the “who’’ and “why” of the past semester. Some may point their finger at others, while some may place their reflective gaze upon themselves. Regardless of the outcomes of the many battles we all took part in, what sides we took and who we blame for the wrongs we felt, we all know that the past year could have passed us by better.

That the past year’s collective experience was colored by trial and tribulation speaks to the toughness and passion that this College brings out in its students; these are the best qualities of Amherst, but they can also hurt. Many times this semester, a very aggressive passion lashed out across campus, and sometimes it did so in ways that students don’t deserve to become a victim to.

Much happened on campus motivated by bad intentions, but even more happened that ended up impacting students merely through its inconsiderate handling — the Women’s Center, the MRC, the Game Room, protests, the mascot debate, mass emails, epithets, hateful vandalism.

In these situations, students felt marginalized, ridiculed, and silenced. It came from their peers, and also from the tone of the public debate. Disrespect played a part in this pain, and we at Amherst talk at great length about the importance of respect in public debate. However, there was another sort of pain that came from seeing other people disrespected — a heavy burden weighing down on campus as we watched it become a rhetorical battle ground.

The temperature in the debate rooms was never meant to be comfortable, but in an unprecedented way this past year, that heat sizzled across all corners of campus. For some, that was the only point — the more gut-wrenchingly loud, and the deeper lodged the guilt, the better.

With students soliciting table-to-table at Val and hurling nasty statuses across Facebook, a place of study often seemed less like a gathering of minds than an enclosed ring of soldiers — each on a mission to take on every other. Students saw other students as the problem, and took it upon themselves to make sure their targets knew. “It’s the culture that’s wrong” became “you are what’s wrong,” and many felt that casting pain as widely as possible alone was victory.

If the goal was to change the rule in an institution, or even to build more empathy and respect across a community for another’s concern or plight, all should refer back to this past year as the approach that should never be taken.

Students, faculty and staff here have open ears and even bigger hearts. When these people sit in places to affect change, they want to do so, and they certainly want to do so to make lives better.

It may be difficult to be less cynical with respect to each other when malevolence comes from feelings of hopelessness that cause us to violently wave our hands in the air. However, none of us came to Amherst to be vilified, or forced into one side of an epic culture war. A little faith in each other, coupled with a recognition that the best way is not always the most disruptive way, may go a long way to making sure that students can become scholars and life-long friends first and foremost, before our time on this campus is up, and all we have are bitter memories waiting for us in the real world beyond.