Thoughts On Community

“Our common susceptibility to humiliation is the only social bond that is needed.” – Richard Rorty Confession: I feel at times here that I walk a fine line between trying not to underestimate or insult the sophistication and high intelligence of our student body on the one side, and failing to fulfill my obligation as a teacher to identify and fill gaps in knowledge and promote the refinement of critical thinking and communication skills on the other. Having acknowledged that precariousness, here I go then, my arms out from my sides for balance, placing one foot carefully in front of the other, hoping not to fall from this tenuous liminality into condescension or negligence. And, as luck would have it, I am walking into turbulence. Forceful dynamics involving social identity and social bias have been aswirl in our community lately. (Is diversity overdone? When is expression of non-heterosexual identity inappropriate? Who’s being intolerant of whom?) While I, like everyone else, have opinions on these important matters, I do not wish to engage with them directly here. Instead, I want to focus on how we engage with such issues and with each other vis-à-vis such issues. If I may be so bold, I would like to offer some guidance on how to achieve effective interaction on matters such as these which involve and tangle subjective worldview with objective fact, and are fluid and multifarious – hard to take in in one look or capture in a simple conceptualization. If intention matters, then please understand that I present what follows out of a sincere desire to facilitate the refinement of skills, the deepening of compassion and the flourishing of community. Here are six safeguards against our precious plurality falling into friction and factionalism: 1. Root yourself deeply and unshakably in the understanding that whenever one of us talks about a particular instance of injustice, discrimination, social bias or suffering, we all should take notice and interest and recognize that there but for a change in social positioning go I. Whether the threat of humiliation is manifest in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, worldview, class or ability, to paraphrase Bono, we are not the same, and yet we are one – an ineluctable paradox that allows and requires us to carry each other. We let each other (and so ourselves) down when we lock our arms across our chests and harrumph at our perceived adversary, when we wag our finger self-righteously denouncing what we are convinced is arrogant wrongheadedness and when we clench our words into rhetorical fists. We must be willing to keep our arms ever extended towards our discussants, our palms open and our hands extended, ready to join with her or him as soon as an opportunity presents itself. And we must not simply wait, but strenuously seek out such opportunities. 2. Avoid flat-earth fallacies. That is, make sure that what you perceive and assert to be “T”rue is not a function of a limited or illusory perspective. Be humble in the face of the possibility that there might be important truths just beyond the horizon of your current scope of knowledge. Be diligent and avail yourself of all available means of checking your perceived reality before you assert it as REALITY. Every person is entitled to his or her own opinion, but no one is entitled to his or her own facts. This campus teams with resources that can help keep you from committing flat-earth fallacies. 3. Give the benefit of the doubt as if it were your job. If you must make an assumption about what someone meant by saying this or that, make the most positive empathic assumption possible. 4. Pursue synthesis, eschew dueling monologues and aspire to true dialogue, which always and only seeks mutual understanding and harmony. 5. Avoid ad hominem argumentation and resist tendentiousness. 6. Be kind. I grieve that you have few models of adherent practice of these principles in today’s world. Indeed, you are surrounded by models that regularly make a mockery of every single one of them. No matter, you can be better than that. Last week’s editorial (in the context of a discussion on wellness education) made much of the uniqueness of the Andover community and its distinctive quality of life, suggesting that “we have a unique set of problems all our own,” perhaps different from those of the typical teenager. In whatever other ways we might be unique and distinctive, we are not, sadly, immune to any of the social and psychological ills that beset other high schools or society in general. As acknowledged by the editors, it simply cannot be true to say, “there is none of that here.” But I’m not sure what it means to be able to assert, even with some confidence, that “there is far less of that here.” How much is so little that we should spend no time on it? Nooses are hanging around the country; a racial epithet appeared on an Exeter dorm door. I could go on. It would be an act of denial and hubris to assert that we are uniquely immune to such ills. In whatever ways we are not the same, we are also one with the sometimes very troubled world just outside the bubble. Therefore, in whatever other ways we might be unique and distinct, I wish that above all else we would distinguish ourselves as a community bound not primarily by our smartness, scholarly drive or how little sleep we get, but by the wisdom that we are each susceptible to being on the wrong side of being misunderstood, marginalized or mistreated, and only less so when we all realize that the best way to preserve one’s own dignity is to steadfastly honor the dignity of others – even, and perhaps especially, those with whom we seem to be in disagreement.