By Donella Meadows
–March 31, 1988–
Nothing tests a community’s dedication to democracy and freedom more than the presence of a loud minority that sows hatred and dissension in the name of democracy and freedom. Dartmouth College has been blessed or cursed with such a group for the past eight years; the college has earned a national reputation as the home of the fractious, maddening, small but ever-renewing bunch of students, nurtured by one right-wing professor, who publish the Dartmouth Review.
These are the students who made news by choosing Martin Luther King’s birthday to smash shanties built by other students in demonstration against apartheid in South Africa. They stole a list of the members of the Gay Students Association and published it. On the college’s annual fast days to raise money for world hunger, they take pleasure in holding ostentatious banquets.
They have a special fondness for savaging anyone in the Dartmouth community who is black, female, Jewish, Native American, or politically liberal. Their primary literary tool is ridicule.
The Review is not an official college publication; the college has tried and failed to get it to drop the Dartmouth name. The paper is financed by wealthy alumni and distributed free all over campus. It has a history of libel suits, mostly settled out of court, and its reporters occasionally get involved in physical scuffles with their incensed victims. When they are brought to disciplinary judgement, Review staff members have an apparently limitless legal defense fund to draw on.
If you can’t believe that one scurrilous student publication could keep a whole college riled up, then you have never lived in a community ravaged by demagoguery. Imagine being a professor whose classes are staked out by Review reporters waiting for you to demonstrate what they have pre-judged to be your incompetence. Imagine being a black student hearing Review-stimulated rumors that you were admitted to Dartmouth because of affirmative action, not because you are qualified. Imagine trying to defend a colleague who has been maligned and finding that you have thereby yourself become a target of journalistic virulence.
Some of my friends have left the college, demoralized by the Review’s attacks. Others would never consider coming here because of its presence. Some faculty and many students, having been humiliated by a Review broadside, have decided to keep quiet about ideas or activities that are not on the Review’s approval list.
How could this happen to an institution where the free flow of ideas is sacrosanct? Surely it is possible to maintain freedom of the press and legitimate expression of opinion without letting the community be destroyed by puerile, divisive journalism. Why hasn’t everyone risen up in moral outrage?
That kind of community solidarity rarely exists, not at Dartmouth, not anywhere. And of course the insidiousness of bigotry is that it eats away at whatever solidarity there is. History is full of much more dramatic examples than this one of the evil of a minority overcoming the common decency of the majority. When the poison of repeated lies has sunk in, when the victims feel isolated and everyone else is lying low, it takes unusual courage, authority, and moral clarity to speak out.
Fortunately for Dartmouth, it has a new President, James Freedman, who has all those characteristics. He had been on campus only eight months before he rose in the first faculty meeting of this spring term and in a measured, thoughtful, but uncompromising statement said what we all should have been saying all along.
He used thunderous words. The Review has “presided over an escalation of personal insult and hostile feeling within our community”. It “recklessly sets out to create a climate of intolerance and intimidation.” It employs a “perversely provocative style of journalism”. It is “irresponsible, mean-spirited, cruel, and ugly”. “Its true target is diversity.”
Freedman ended by affirming Dartmouth’s insistence upon diversity, which means, he said, “differences and otherness, in all of their rich dimensions, … unconventional approaches and unfashionable stances toward enduring and intractable questions, … opening up our students’ minds and our community’s spirit to a richness of different persons, different cultures, different styles of thinking…. Dartmouth will not turn back from its steadfast commitment to diversity … and it will not abide having faculty members or others cruelly ridiculed and insulted on the basis of their race or gender.”
To hear those words spoken aloud with certainty and without apology was like drinking great draughts of cool water after a long thirst. The faculty rose in a standing ovation. Some were in tears.
Freedman’s speech was an appeal to civility, not an edict. The college will not, of course, interfere with the publication of the Review. But one can already tell on the campus that the paper’s hold on the community is weakened. Its diatribes, if they are read at all, will be read with appropriate disbelief. There will be more unified support for its victims. Others will be emboldened to speak out. It is no accident that I am writing this column the week after Freedman’s speech and not any of the weeks before.
President Freedman has done more than restore integrity to the Dartmouth community. He has provided a lesson to us all about what vigilance and courage it takes to maintain a society of tolerance and freedom.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988