April 22, 2014

JOHN | What Do You Mean by Dialogue?

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I’m seeing the word “dialogue” thrown around a lot lately, posed as a solution to various “divisions” in the campus community. There seems to be an idea that students are not getting along, and that the solution to this is to have us talk, and then perhaps then we could hold hands and be one happy campus community. If only we could engage in dialogue.

I think we are having some trouble understanding what dialogue really is, and what it is for. I also think that dialogue is deliberately and strategically invoked by the University to distance itself from institutional culpability and place the blame on students’ interpersonal interactions, on the failure to “communicate.”

Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed who emphasized the importance of dialogue in a critical education, once said, “If the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed.” Two Thursdays ago, a group of students found that the structure of the Student Assembly was not allowing dialogue by indefinitely barring the introduction of their resolution to divest from companies that profit off the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The following Thursday, they decided to have the “dialogue” on their own terms. This meant disrupting the regular course of the Student Assembly meeting and engaging in a different kind of interaction with each other — the Students’ Assembly. At one point, an organizer of the demonstration spoke up and astutely noted that students were not just there to talk to the Student Assembly and other figures of authority on their own terms; more than that, they were there to talk to each other. I sat through the entire Students’ Assembly meeting that afternoon, but I felt particularly jolted by that assertion because I realized how true it was. We were challenging a structure that was preventing us from being in dialogue with each other by doing just that — talking to each other. The point of this action wasn’t to talk back to authority and demand retribution so much as it was to reimagine a new kind of governance. Dialogue is the encounter between people. This was us encountering each other.

One student noted in the open mic that, when President David Skorton and Vice President Susan Murphy walked into the last half of the meeting, they made us feel like we were being disorderly and unproductive and wasting their time. Skorton tried to summarize by saying, “all I can say is that I think the key problem I’ve been observing during the last week . . . is that we have not yet learned how to talk with or listen to each other across this campus.” He suggested that we were the problem, because we were disrupting “dialogue,” rather than recognizing the fact that we were there because we were not given a chance to speak by the structure in place. Furthermore, he reduced our grievances to a matter of miscommunication and hurt feelings, rather than acknowledging that the Student Assembly was not working as it was supposed to. No amount of dialogue can change the fact that right now, “shared governance” is acting as a divide and conquer strategy; it is not meant to provide a platform for free discourse, it is meant to contain it so that conversations cannot lead anywhere. On top of that, we saw that on the issue of Israel-Palestine, the Assembly tried to ensure that this “dialogue” never even started. Dialogue without action is useless. In fact, it is a tactical evasion from institutional culpability. It is a tactic that maintains the status quo.

Last Thursday, an excellent column, “Against Dialogue,” addressed the irrelevance of “dialogue,” as it is invoked by Zionists, to the plight of the Palestinians: “Cornell students having abstract “dialogues” about the peace process has nothing to do with the material conditions of Palestinians, conditions which include poverty, statelessness and a racist militarized occupation.” I want to re-emphasize this point and encourage anyone reading this to refer back to that column, but I also want to zoom out and examine the way “dialogue” is invoked not only when the issue is justice in Palestine, but also when any sort of pressure is placed on the University to hold itself accountable.

Last week a disgusting article denying the existence of rape culture asserted that “the best hope in change lies in a real dialogue,” rather than in the transformation of society’s normalization of sexual violence in material and tangible ways. Again we see dialogue positioned to paint those fighting for change as “divisive,” and to position the act of “dialogue” that denies existence of the root problem (rape culture) as beneficial. Many people have condemned Kairey’s article as offensive, but fewer people have noted the way “dialogue” is similarly applied to shut down critiques of Israel, identifying the those who speak up about oppression as “divisive,” and those condoning oppression as the “peacekeepers.” After members of the Sigma Pi fraternity threw bottles and yelled racial epithets at students of color last year, “dialogue” was invoked by administrators to placate students’ demands for change. In fact, an entire course — Intergroup Dialogue — was offered  in response to the students’ demands for institutional change, particularly the demand for a social justice requirement course. While Intergroup Dialogue is a valuable course for any student to take, it does not address the issue of structural transformation, both on the part of the University and the Greek system, which was demanded by student activists.

Why can’t we all sit down and have a dialogue? We all want the same things. Let’s not be divisive. These are things we hear often. They are deceptively advocating for certain kind of “dialogue” that is righteously invoked by the powerful, but is not really dialogue at all; It is actually a stalemate. Paulo Freire said that, “dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not wish this naming” — whether that naming is the oppression of Palestinians, the existence of rape culture or the structural racism of the University. And when the Students’ Assembly took over the S.A. meeting last Thursday, I was strongly reminded of another Freire quote, which said that dialogue cannot occur “between those who deny others the right to speak their word and those whose right to speak has been denied them. . . .Those who have been denied their primordial right to speak their word must first reclaim this right and prevent the continuation of this dehumanizing aggression.” I think that quote speaks for itself.