Students will always have differences in opinion, be they related to campus life or on national politics. What defined the last year, however, was the divisiveness of discourse between ‘camps’ that forced students into dichotomies, such as either opposing sexual assault laws with little to no due process protection, or “silenc[ing] and derail[ing]” the experiences of survivors. The risk of this year’s NSO is that, once again, it creates an environment in which people find themselves balkanized between unflinching support or uncomfortable silence, with no rhetorical bridge in between.
New Student Orientation provides the Stanford administration with an opportunity to define just how students should relate to one another. The entire freshman class is required to attend. Residence staff are on hand to assist with guiding conversations as Stanford deems appropriate. Students come with something close to a tabula rasa as far as on-campus interaction is concerned; it is the duty and burden of the university to define how that interaction should happen during freshmen’s first five days on campus.
The problem with the NSO events that currently attempt to tackle issues of student politics and discussion of these issues – specifically, the Faces of Community event and talk with RAs thereafter – is that they promote an environment in which discourse is stifled rather than free. This silencing arises for two reasons. First, discussions – of privilege, intersectionality, and identity – are presented in an environment of silence, prominence and utmost seriousness. While the rationale is clear – an event like Faces requires students to pour out secrets of their existence – it serves to create a climate of uncertainty. Certainly, my own experience of the post-Faces discussion involved many students simply unwilling to contribute anything to crucial questions of social justice; most found themselves overwhelmed, and more likely to look inward than engage in communal dialogue.
This uncertainty might be justified if one were able to discount the second aspect of the experiences discussed at Faces: people often react differently to the same privilege or lack thereof. Last year, for example, two underprivileged people at Stanford gave headline speeches at Faces. One emphasised that assuming they would fit in easily at Stanford was insulting. The other condemned the implication that less privileged people might find a Stanford acceptance harder as insulting. Both these reactions are understandable; privilege and social relations are complex phenomena. That said, putting controversial topics front and centre of a primary NSO event is likely to leave students confused and overwhelmed as they try to understand their own feelings and experiences, and articulate them, without coming off as insensitive to the same 1,800 individuals with whom they will likely spend the next four years. This feeling is especially true in a world where personal politics of offence have such incredible weight. Few students would likely be willing to take an important stand on a social justice issue, in the context of an event that puts on a pedestal the personal hurt people feel from matters that disadvantage them through privilege. The upshot of these interacting factors is an environment where nobody is willing to speak up, and instead keeps their – often half-formed or inconsistent – thoughts to themselves. This silence is worse both for the community and for the individuals who might otherwise have spoken out.
The university administration have recognized that achieving some greater degree of neutral discourse is advisable and founded Open XChange (OX) over the summer. Unfortunately, the format of these panel events risks failing to foster comprehensive beneficial dialogue. OX is formalised; its limited audience participation and substantial amounts of listening prevent students from becoming comfortable with engaging in casual dialogue – with peers and on their own – in the infinite conversations that occur at dining tables and between classes. Only a strong project of norm-setting early on at Stanford can establish this ease, and OX – although promising in its concept – may constitute too little, too late. Moreover, campus’ most prominent political actors may not even use this platform beneficially. To quote one commentator in the aftermath of a dialogue on the Stanford Activists Facebook page: “Omg! It’s where we get to hear both sides of racial inequality and sexual assault.” If these “omg” attitudes become entrenched, then the activists who can inflame and polarize campus debate will spurn the very platform designed to moderate their rhetoric.
The most important group of students left out by NSO and OX are the silent majority. In the political sphere, millions of former moderates have been successfully mobilised by Marine le Pen and Donald Trump to back ill-thought-through, often xenophobic policy, in the face of confusion and a sense of isolation over issues of social justice, to the bafflement of the political establishment. At Stanford, the results are different, but the concept is the same. Students, especially freshmen, are extremely unlikely to speak up when they fear a non-PC remark – even if a question – will be villainised and swiftly rebuffed in a communal context. Add this to their likely reaction to a headline NSO event that directly calls out people – who had no previous knowledge that their very existence could be deemed aggressive – for their privilege, and the result is silence at best. At worst, these students are likely to express profound skepticism and disillusionment with Stanford social and political institutions.
It is vital that students feel confident about discussing personal and political issues; they are often central to our college experience, they affect everyone, and explaining our own stances forces us to re-examine and consider our own personal principles. Only when people feel confident about speaking out do others appreciate just how deep-held a contrarian belief may be or how persuasive another’s nuanced worldview and logical argumentation and conclusions can be. The balkanisation of Stanford students, and the lack of engagement with people who have the most to learn, partially explains why issues of activism last year were increasingly met with rolled eyes and sighs. By far the greatest priority of Stanford’s administration should be ensuring that dialogue happens, and that it happens between everyone: not just at townhalls or Senate meetings but at dining hall tables and on Main Quad. In light of the continued tensions that loom over campus, it is worth questioning whether NSO is structured to create that dialogue, or whether it fosters further division and alienation.