I haven’t yet signed the “Setting a New Tone” poster-petitions that have sprung up across campus in the last week. I still don’t know how the “genuine dialogue” urged by the posters would play out at Yale, and I’m hesitant to endorse anything I don’t understand.
That word — dialogue — gets thrown around a lot, but no one ever bothers to explain what productive dialogue actually is. Instead, we have myriad examples of what it isn’t: anything anonymous or offensive. Failing to offer a positive model of campus dialogue is mildly hypocritical. More damningly, it obscures the fact that the pressures inhibiting mutual respect and genuine listening are far subtler than we can admit, and therefore infinitely harder to counteract.
The insistence on using universal dialogue to protect campus diversity is laudable. But it must protect all types of diversity, including the differences in the way students speak: the words we use, the symbols and references we invoke. And any difference in speech poses a difficulty to universal understanding. The obstacle could be surmounted by determination to value and maintain a diversity of styles, but as it stands, there are plenty of styles of speech students refuse to tolerate.
We particularly disdain using the academic terms and jargon acquired over the course of undergraduate years. The use of jargon is tolerated in certain places: It’s a necessary evil in writing papers (where it’s often instrumental to filling space or disguising a lack of “real content”) and, to a lesser extent, in class. But in non-academic settings — from common-room conversations to, yes, columns in the News — using jargon is usually an easy way to ensure one’s contribution will be dismissed or ignored. This has nothing to do with the content of these discussions. I’m not accusing Yale students of being frivolous, and I don’t want us to steer our attentions exclusively toward high-minded Major Issues. But by expressing disgust toward styles both rude and intellectual, we become relentlessly middlebrow.
I’ve often said the reason I came to Yale was that I was sick of having high-school classmates ask me to “say that again, and in English this time.” But at least they gave me the benefit of the doubt; my comments here are usually met with an offhand “You’re such an anthropology major” and not a request to explain myself. I’m just as intolerant, if not more so, of the computer scientists I know who find programming analogies for every situation. Maybe brush-offs like these attempt to draw attention away from the fact that there are words we just don’t know; maybe we’re convinced we couldn’t understand if we tried. Regardless of explanation, when someone else speaks and we refuse to respond, there is no dialogue.
It’s true that some deliberately throw words into conversation to make themselves seem more intelligent. Those people are tools. For the rest of us, that our courses of study have shaped the way we see the world is a potent sign of the value of our educations — something of which we ought to be proud. And the only way to tell the difference between the students and the poseurs is to challenge them by asking about unfamiliar concepts, integrating them into the dialogue.
Valuing academic insight isn’t just a precondition for genuine dialogue. It’s intrinsic to the particular issues Yale faces. The series of official panels on hate and hate speech that concluded this week demonstrated the necessity of understanding such phenomena academically, using concepts and jargon from a range of fields, before crafting a proper response. Admittedly, a panel isn’t dialogue; students were audience members, not participants. But appropriate jargon shouldn’t be limited to faculty — one of Yale’s biggest selling points to prospective students is that an education here entails learning from one’s friends as well as one’s professors, and the pleas for campuswide dialogue echo this by emphasizing the diversity of experience Yale students have to share with each other. Why can’t we give our peers the respect they deserve by acknowledging that their outlooks aren’t just informed by the circumstances of their lives, but by their intellectual passions?
The ideal of “constructive dialogue” is often invoked in the hopes of making Yale’s campus an example to the rest of the world. But a belief that we can construct exemplary dialogue designed for anyone to understand implies that the difference between Yalies and everyone else is our moral superiority. Recognizing the truth doesn’t require such elitism: We chose to come here to pursue our intellectual passions, and those passions have influenced the way we think and speak.
So the next time you hear a passing reference to the liminal or the strange loop, ask about it or look it up. We shouldn’t strive for a dialogue so universal that nobody feels comfortable speaking at all.
Dara Lind is a junior in Branford College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.