Amherst Does Not Play With Others
Issue   |   Wed, 02/22/2012 - 02:16

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Did anyone else smell the vitriol on campus this week? Among newspaper readership, it was most evident in Dan Diner’s article on secularization and Andrew Kaake’s column on abortion. Their recent newspaper submissions have prompted an outpouring of student responses. Infuriated and affirmed readers alike shared their honest concerns, sometimes boldly proclaiming their identity, but more often remaining under the cloak of anonymity. It bled into our sentiments about AAS and the spring concert, and also resulted in the distribution of hurtful pamphlets that attempted to divide the campus into partygoers and non-partygoers. These incidents reflect how we handle on-campus conflicts as a whole.

It is so much easier to bare our souls, however ugly, in a virtual sphere where we can take refuge behind a screen, instead of talking face to face or in a public forum. Where are the commentators and angry online forum participants at the school’s open discussions and speaker events regarding these very topics? In this regard, I cannot count myself among the innocent.

Kaake’s article drew much more negative outcry than Diner’s did. Students were very quick to make massive leaps in logic to make assumptions about Kaake’s identity, such as privilege, personal history and socioeconomic class. While Andrew and I do not always see eye to eye, I have great respect for him, and as a friend who knows his story, I can say that many of the assumptions made about him were grossly ignorant and hateful. Students took comments to another low by urging fellow readers to “stick it to Andrew Kaake.”

These are not intelligent, dignified responses — these are immature personal attacks, and they reveal a shameful trend on our campus to poke our heads out of the sand only when it is convenient. In addition to the religiously-charged newspaper submissions, the pamphlets encouraged an even greater rift between student populations than what already existed, and the lack of discussion between AAS and students resulted in bitterness and misunderstanding.

I would highlight similar vitriolic attacks on Diner, but I found none. The disagreements were civil, and they were very few in number.

Perhaps Diner’s article struck a nerve with students who do have religious convictions (myself included) because it pitted one belief system against another. Diner’s belief system is unnamed, but he seems to have unwavering faith in Science-with-a-capital-S (although he makes no efforts to clarify whose science it is, which funds, grants and corporations support it, what agenda it has and whom it is serving). Such faith is quite similar to the devotion expressed by the religious. But science is merely a tool, not an entity worthy of our love or devotion, and it is a tool that can be used to unforeseeable, sometimes horribly destructive ends.

While we have made advances in fighting and preventing cancer, we also have greater exposure to carcinogens than we have ever had and perhaps higher cancer rates, partly because of the great 20th-century lie, “Better living through chemistry.” While we claim to have a greater understanding of what causes asthma, we now also have many more causes of asthma. Our discoveries and inventions create new problems as we use them to solve others. We know so much about sociological theory and community building exercises, but we still deal with poverty and social ills the way we always have: with fear, impatience and apathy.

I understand the arguments made by Diner because I once believed them myself, as a former atheist. I was certain that one could disrespect a person’s belief system while still respecting that person. But I was the first to ferociously defend my own belief system: atheism and the scientifically-uninformed view that “science” as understood by a constrained, self-important, Western construction is the end-all-be-all deity. I immediately saw any attack on my beliefs as a strike against my personal well-being. I do believe that there is one truth. I do not espouse the self-defeating view that “all beliefs are equally valid,” as though refusing to wrestle with their complications makes the problems disappear. However, I do believe that civil, informed discussion is the only productive way to uncover the truth and to build an effective community on this campus.

In a class last semester, I had the opportunity to discuss a column I had written that was met with respectful disagreement from a classmate. It was not easy to discuss with my class the myriad of reasons why they disagreed with me. However, it was a much more civil and productive conversation than it would have been if it had been like the discussions online about Kaake and Diner’s pieces, the snickering from both sides about the anonymous pamphlets or the anger directed at the AAS.

I invite those who disagree with my views to please talk with me. Email me. Let’s get a meal together at Val. Invite me to a casual discussion or forum with you and others interested in talking. Let’s stop this immature slew of personal attacks and unproductive anger. I realize that the internet and the campus’ print media are curtains behind which people can feel safe speaking, but this presumed safety is often translated into hateful speech bordering on bullying and verbal abuse. The campus is already divided enough; there is no need to create new schisms or further cleave those that already exist.

Shirui Chen '12 (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/22/2012 - 02:33

I agree wholeheartedly that debate and discussion needs to be respectful in order to be conducive towards any kinds of positive outcome. The anonymity and lack of face-to-face afforded by the internet can sometimes make it easy to forget that. However, I would like mention one benefit of having a debate online or in print rather than in person, and that is each participant has more time to think about what is said and craft a thoughtful, sound response. I often find that as long as participants remain respectful and check their tone, the arguments made on all sides of online debates are more sound and impressive than those made in person, where social norms dictate that we respond immediately without having enough time to think.

tmalone13 (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/22/2012 - 04:54

The idea that we need to treat every (or even most) argument or idea with some sort of respect is rather ridiculous. Diner's article was a poorly constructed internet forum level screed about the need for ~rational thinking~, every Dawkins Atheist's favorite phrase, and Kaake's was an insultingly awful and misogynistic argument that immediately poisoned any well for fruitful discussion with a Holocaust reference, was filled to the brim with buzzwords, and contained more than its fare share of rather empty platitudes. There is room for respectful disagreement in a number of venues, but not every single argument calls for it. Frankly, philocompo's absolutely unbelievable dismantling of Diner's article was more than it deserved.
You briefly touch on people commenting on Kaake's privilege etc as though that's an invalid thing to do as well, and that's just flat out wrong. Kaake is a white straight American male, he absolutely couldn't be any more privileged. For some reason, people seem to think that calling out someone's privilege is somehow an insult or attack, when it's nothing of the sort. The reality is that those of us with distinct forms of privilege (whether they be male privilege, white privilege, or whatever), will likely lack the ability to fully understand the position of those without. It's not a moral, intellectual, or any other kind of failing, it just is the "burden" (lol) of privilege. He needs to understand how privilege works if he's ever going to dare to attack the rights of those without.
And honestly, how can you approach a conversation from a civil manner when a dude says something like "I talk to women (quite frequently in fact)" as though that makes him an expert on how women feel or something. That's a statement so insultingly stupid I don't even know where to begin.

lindescribable (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/22/2012 - 12:55

To tmalone13: Sounds like a great excuse to cover one's hears and refuse to consider others' points. Ironically, you sound a whole lot like the far-right sect of the republican party. Even those with the strongest convictions should be able to withstand different perspectives, even if they may find them horribly misplaced. I certainly hope you don't go about your life arbitrarily choosing which ideas and people to treat with respect

tmalone13 (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/22/2012 - 16:34

There's nothing arbitrary about refusing to respect misogynist, racist, or otherwise offensive opinions.

JKoo (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/22/2012 - 14:28

Ophelia, it was a pleasure to discuss your Christian Land Ethic articles in seminar last semester. I believe that was probably the most respectful and insightful discussions regarding religion I have ever had. I am glad to see that you've posted another articulate and respectable article. Props.

Samantha Schmidt (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/22/2012 - 16:03

As the student who encouraged others to "stick it to Andrew Kaake", I would have appreciated that my name be used after you wrote about "students more often remaining under the cloak of anonymity". I also would have appreciated a little context here. I urged commenters to "stick it to Andrew Kaake" by donating to an organization that helps women who are unable to afford abortions ( I also urged commenters to use their votes and their voices to speak out in favor of keeping abortion safe and legal. If Andrew Kaake was hurt by my comment, I don't apologize. As a woman who has worked in a clinic that provides abortions, as a woman who has held the hands of women undergoing D&Cs, as a woman who has helped the survivors of rape and incest or plagued with difficult health conditions to obtain the abortions they legally are entitled to, I was enraged by Andrew Kaake's lack of compassion for the real human beings already on this planet.

Leah Fine (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/22/2012 - 16:48

Ophelia- I have, in the classes we've taken together and in your previous articles for the Student, found your arguments to be generally kind and very insightful. This article, however, is an exception. In particular, you call out a particular student for using the phrase "stick it to Andrew Kaake." I won't agree with her choice of phrasing there or in the rest of her comment, but you conveniently ignore the fact that the method she recommended to her peers for "sticking it" was to involve themselves more directly in a civil debate and to donate to the cause, should they believe in it. You further make the accusation of deliberate anonymity, when this student-- Sam Schmidt '12 -- clearly included both her name and email address in her comment. You made no attempt to reach out to her and hold a civil discussion, instead choosing to force anonymity on her, call her out publicly, and imply that she has an ugly soul-- a comment that anyone who had taken the time to listen to her opinions would see clearly was unfounded.

I will not deny that students have made hateful comments towards Andrew Kaake, and I wholeheartedly agree that civil disagreements must stop engaging in personal attacks. Still, you deliberately turn a blind eye to equally hateful comments made towards Daniel Diner, including one calling him "an embarrassment and disgrace to Amherst College" and another pointing out his "intellectual incompetence" (the first by Hana Tran '14, and the second by an anonymous commenter). Regardless of my opinions on the content or quality of his article, it is quite simply untrue and unfair to say all disagreements with it were kinder, more civil, or fewer in number than those to Andrew Kaake's article.

There's no doubt that there is need for more civil debate on campus, but this article does nothing but perpetuate the same rifts you want to heal. I don't think that either side of this debate comes from a hateful place-- it's just a drastically different expression of a very similar compassion for the health and happiness of other human beings. I've seen firsthand that both you and Sam Schmidt are incredibly kind and compassionate people, but it's unfair and extremely counterproductive to imply that one side of this debate has handled itself in a better manner than the other. I'm just glad that no matter the medium and no matter the temperament of the debate, these articles have sparked conversation--especially from those who, like you, may often feel as though their opinions are in the minority on the Amherst campus.

Ophelia (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/22/2012 - 17:54

Thanks to everyone for their input. I'm learning a lot from you all, and I hope that if you want to talk further, you'll approach me. I'd love to talk with you more.

Shirui: I completely agree with you. Writing does give us a chance to lay out our thoughts better. Thanks for bringing up the other side, which I neglected to mention.

tmalone13: You're certainly entitled to your opinions on the validity of different arguments, and sometimes we don't present the evidence for our opinions very well. I believe that we can disagree with one another, put out the evidence, and let that speak for itself. We can also express that we're angry, hurt, etc. We have the choice to select combatative or noncombatative words. Words can wound the recipient.

Also, I personally disagree with you when you say that acknowledging privilege is a neutral action. I've wrongly assumed before that my classmates have some sort of privilege I don't have, and it colored the way I perceived them. I've been very humbled by the times they've corrected me. Assuming that someone has privilege is to assume that he or she has limited scope or understanding. That alone is a definition of privilege; it's neutral. But to associate someone with privilege is to brand someone with a value judgment. Andrew Kaake is a white male, yes, but the kinds of privilege that people assumed he had were things that couldn't be seen by looking him up in the directory, like socioeconomic status and life experiences. Those are the kinds of privilege that are, in my opinion, insulting to ladle onto someone without prior knowledge of that person.

JKoo: Thanks for your kind words; the credit definitely belongs to the whole class, yourself included for your insights and questions. Again, I’d love to talk with you more if you ever want to continue our discussion from last semester, etc.

Samantha Schmidt: I stated no opinions about Andrew Kaake's article, itself. I only wanted to talk about the resulting conversations. I'm sorry for the misunderstanding; I didn't mean to associate your comment with anonymity, and I apologize if it could be read as such. I meant to highlight it as an example of the very charged comments that came up. I didn't name you because I didn't want to risk attracting negative attention to you. Had I known that you preferred to be mentioned by name, I would have. In the future, I’ll be more considerate and consent-seeking in quoting people. If you want to attach your name to your opinion in the paper, feel free to submit an article.

Leah Fine: I apologized to Samantha and I apologize to you too for misleading readers into thinking that she commented anonymously. I read that comment as something much more personal than "stick it to the pro-life agenda." I don't know how to satisfy both the claims that I forced anonymity upon her and that I publicly called her out. My intention in not mentioning her name was to avoid drawing unwanted attention to her, if anyone was to be upset. I certainly did not mean to imply that she or any particular individual had an ugly soul; to clarify: we (generic) exhibit our ugliness when we make personal attacks on one another, and I am certainly no exception from ugliness.

At the time that I drafted this column, yes, the responses to Andrew Kaake far outnumbered responses to Dan Diner. I regretted seeing that people publicly made hateful comments toward Dan Diner, but I was struck by the sheer number of livid comments made toward Andrew. Objectively, that may have to do with the College's demographic. The article published in this week's paper was an example of a well-constructed argument against Kaake's column.

Again, I apologize if my column came off as an attempt to create further rifts in the college community. This is the last thing that I want. If you'd like to continue talking, I'd be glad to talk with you more. I'm definitely starting to see the benefits of such online discussions, so if this website is to be a forum for the student body to air concerns that it otherwise can't, then I'll respect that.

Daniel Diner (not verified) says:
Sat, 02/25/2012 - 17:59

It seems to me as though you, Ophelia, and most of the people writing their comments here agree that we all share an imperative not to be disrespectful towards each other, personally, when arguing with one another. Now, it is certainly true that Kaake has received far more personally disrespectful attacks than have I (though as Leah has pointed out, I have received plenty). And though I am the biggest opponent of Kaake's views, I respect that he had the courage to publish them and face the criticism that he must have foreseen. I find such attacks on him highly disturbing and I urge everyone to not attack him, nor any other writer, directly.
However, the disparity should not be surprising. I wrote an opinion that contradicts that of many people on this campus. Kaake did that too, except he also argued that his view should be forcibly applied to all. Even if you think our views are equally incorrect (though I certainly hope not) you ought to acknowledge that his article had a clause that would be particularly harmful if applied.