9/11 Flag Incident Prompts Forums

By Eliza Teach

A group of nine faculty members hosted a series of seven forum discussions last week to encourage a community conversation about protest and civility on campus in light of the vandalism of the flag memorial on Sept. 11. The forum events, which took place from Monday, Sept. 16 to Thursday, Sept. 19, attracted minimal attendance among students despite the initial outrage in response to the vandalism.

“The occasion for these meetings is the destruction of the 9/11 memorial earlier this week, but our larger purpose will be to consider together the responsibilities we have as an academic community to treat one another with respect and tolerance, even as we pursue political and social agendas that sometimes divide us,” wrote Vice President of Academic Affairs Tim Spears in an all-school email.

Professor Rebecca Kneale Gould, senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental Studies held a session on Wednesday, Sept. 17.

“I think that the whole event and response to the event stirred up a lot of emotion,” said Gould. “So those of us who offered to hold some conversational sessions did so precisely so that people could talk [in small groups and confidentially]. We also wanted to make sure that conversations didn’t happen in disrespectful ways, as can be the case when they occur online and anonymously.”

Gould saw her job mainly as to hold a space for discussion and to make sure the discussion didn’t fall into ad-homonym attacks. She emphasized her role as a moderator to make sure everyone felt safe and mutually respected.

“The mere fact that people know that this is going on is useful for the college community,” said Gould. “In response to this event, we are not professors standing up on the stage saying, ‘you should think this and I think that;’ rather, we are just facilitating a meaningful conversation.”

Professor of Religion James Calvin Davis said that his own study of political discourse prompted him to lead a discussion. He authored a book in 2010 called In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can United America on Seven Moral Issues that Divide Us, in which he argues that our political discourse lacks any semblance of civility. He argues that contrary to public opinion, religion may not actually be a genesis for incivility but rather a resource for approaching civil discourse through mutual respect.

“When my own college community got around to talking about it, I jumped at the chance to participate,” said Davis. “I think there were some people in the administration who had the concern that these discussions had the potential to be less than civil, but I had the sense that students were going to take it seriously and were going to want to talk about it.”

Peter Murray ’13.5, who attended three of the discussions, said that the conversations took a little while to get going but Gould and Davis’s discussions turned into a larger question not just about the protest but about what 9/11 means to us.

“I was sort of surprised at some people’s reactions,” said Murray. “It seemed like generally, people thought that the act of taking the flags out of the ground was a mistake and recognized that even the student who did it thought it was a mistake. At the same time, we are willing to entertain the discussion about what these flags mean — what they mean about imperialism, and the sort of nationalistic connotations of the flag.”

Beyond discussion surrounding the use of the American flag versus other types of commemorations, the discussions branched beyond the specific incident to encompass broader issues.

Perhaps the most emphasized point was the nature of the Internet and specifically the student body’s response to the incident both online and around campus. Davis focused on this in his discussion.

“We were all brought together because of a particular act of protest that was judged by many to be out of bounds, to be disrespectful, but of course the response online to that has been disturbing,” said Davis. “I think it was good for us also to talk about that, that the expectations of accountability are not only on these kinds of occasions of protest but for those of us who are reacting to them.”

Davis was referring to the many comments on social media websites that were laden with personal threats and accusations towards those who destroyed the memorial site.

Dean of the College Shirley Collado echoed this sentiment.

“It was disappointing to see the lack of student turnout for the discussions. I find that there is a shortage of that here and too much reliance on communicating in the abyss of the Internet and blogosphere. We need more face-to-face dialogue that allows students to own what they believe and learn across differences,” she wrote in an email.

One of the most important takeaways Murray saw in Davis’s conversation was the importance of being civil even in protest.

“One of the points I took away from Davis’s discussion was civility isn’t sort of this old stodgy sentiment about keeping things in line,” said Murray. “We must recognize how to be civil even when we are trying to disrupt in a more tangible or unexpected way.”

Reem Rosenhaj ’16.5, who attended the Sept. 19 discussion, said, “I noticed in the discussion that there was definitely more people there who were from a certain social circle which maybe didn’t include those people who had more aggressive reactions.”

Rosenhaj expressed a desire to continue similar open and respectful community discussion series.

“I think it would be great if we could have an all student facilitated discussion although I’m not sure if it would be realistically as productive now as having a faculty member there, which would keep it inclusive to all students,” she added.

Looking towards the future, Davis said, “I think it is a stretch to say that an hour long conversation, or even five of those is going to accomplish much of anything. What we have accomplished is the start of a habit of talking about these things. I think this will catch if [we] each say that we need to take ownership of the tenor of our conversations on campus.”

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