The Things We Say Matter

By Fritz Parker

In last week’s edition of the Campus, the editorial board wrote of a recent SGA bill: “The Campus commends the SGA for taking initiative to create a more serious dialogue of change.” In a reply email, SGA President Taylor Custer wrote back: “I look forward to engaging in this important discussion.” In the midst of disagreement, we agree that it’s important that we’re talking about it. Doesn’t seem so productive, does it?

I am writing this week to suggest that there is a difference between talking about problems and doing things to solve them, and that we – the students, faculty and administration of Middlebury – tend to do far too much of the former and not enough of the latter. So much so, in fact, that what we end up doing isn’t even talking about our problems, but talking about the importance of talking about them.

If you’re skeptical, think about the last time you heard somebody mention fostering dialogue or engaging in conversations or starting discussions: these are the buzzwords that govern confrontational interactions here at Middlebury. Our default way of dealing with difficult subjects, it seems, is to agree to talk about them some more. The insidious thing about this phenomenon is that talking-about-talking is really shorthand for putting off the responsibility of doing. It’s metadiscourse, linguistic apathy, and we should do everything in our power to oppose it.

I was disappointed at Sunday’s editorial meaning to hear my fellow editors using this tactic to write off the recent graffiti incidents on campus. The ideal objective of activism – my co-editors suggested – is to spark conversations about the issue at hand, and an anonymous act of graffiti cannot do that. I disagree. Talking is important, but we cannot let it stand alone as a solution.

The thing about talking is that it’s easy to ignore. Groups on our campus have spent years trying to foster dialogue about issues of all kinds, and the tough reality is that the people who have the power to fix these problems have gotten really good at filtering out such conversations. Even if we allow ourselves to feel good about being the sort of people who are willing to talk about hard problems, we will fall into the mold of failing to do anything to fix them.

The recent graffiti vandalism was a rare example of someone here breaking that mold. Creating a mess that someone else has to clean up is an imperfect solution, but I commend the person responsible for going outside the box of traditional on-campus discourse to stand up for what they think is right. Language is a fragile, fragile thing; repeated abuse can break it

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