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Place Nice or Go Home – A Polemic against Polemicists

From the Fletcher Ledger, December 17 2006

For all the shortcomings of living in the Ivory Tower of Academia (have you ever tried to clean beer spills off of ivory?), it provides the perfect venue for reasonable debate. The values of thoughtful exploration, disagreement, and conversation are the core of the whole experience in higher ed whether in class or over drinks at the Burren. You don’t even need to be right to get a listen around here, and you shouldn’t. Unfortunately, recent events at Tufts and Fletcher itself have proven that this environment of being able to speak and listen cannot be taken for granted – and we, as a community, need to insist on those bedrock principles of respect if our education is to be worthy of the name.

It would not be worth mentioning the Primary Source’s shockingly racist “carol” if it didn’t speak to a broader problem with the polarizing political debate in this country. The Primary Source has long reveled in an absolutely revolting and juvenile brand of propagandizing. (They also seem to hate Fletcherites, which doesn’t really endear them to us.) The Primary Source aims to offend, to insult, to push their opinions through belligerent obnoxiousness cloaked in the self-righteousness of the victimized. It speaks to the decay at the soul of conservatism where, despite supporting the ideology that is ascendant across the nation, such budding Karl Roves feel the need to act as revolutionary guerrillas, lobbing grenades of hateful rhetoric rather than trying to have a persuasive conversation.

The Primary Source has the right to say whatever they want. That doesn’t mean that Tufts University needs to pay for it. Debate in the academic world demands that all sides listen and are listened to in a cooperative way. Those who are not respectful should not have their vitriol subsidized by institutions whose core values they are attempting to undermine. We need to build bridges, not burn them in some rear-guard action.

Especially at Fletcher we’ve got to be able to disagree without, as it is said, being disagreeable. We come from across the country and globe, and we’re supposed to be the next-gen world leaders. There’s a bajilion different opinions on highly controversial issues here – and all of them are held by people of good will. From the Ledger’s secret underground bunker we encourage writers to share their perspectives in ways that increases understanding, if not always agreement.

Recent events over the Mediterranean Cultural Night controversy of fundraising for a Lebanese organization were a disturbing turn from the collegial family that Fletcher aspires to be. There was simply too much acrimony and too little effort to understand, and the issue was dealt with in unprofessional and discourteous ways. The venom that emerged calls into question whether the friendship we all show is just a facade, and made a mockery of the term “Fletcher Community.” The eventual effort to have a listening session was precisely the sort of conversation that should be going on at Fletcher – though there, too, “listening” at times seemed to be lacking, and the event was late in coming.

Important topics in the Middle East have become so polarizing at Fletcher that people who want to know more, to ask questions, and to express opinions are afraid to do so, lest they be attacked for the temerity of holding the wrong ones. But disagreement with policy choices is not the same thing as hatred, and with-us-or-against-us is not a productive position to take. This lack of openness is another chilling constraint on the ongoing conversation that a Fletcher education needs to have at its heart.

Seeing the world through a broader perspective than our own is the only reason we should be here in the first place. Anyone who stops the flow of respectful debate and discussion impoverishes the education of us all. At the same time, discussion that is not respectful has no place at the table in the first place.

If we at Fletcher of all places can’t discuss tough topics without turning into warring camps, the Ledger despairs for the future of our world.

The editors will be doing their despairing and finger-waggling from the comfort of their rooms next term. This is their last issue at the helm of this venerable publication.

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