The Dartmouth Observer

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Wednesday, September 22, 2004
Wright's Convocation Speech

Jim Wright's address to the 08s (08s!) can be read here. I'm actually fairly impressed by what he said -- apart from last excerpt:
  • Life is full of stresses and tensions, and kindred souls - those who share with you a set of experiences, a common background, similar ambitions for life, tastes in music, literature, movies, recreational activities, common political values or religious beliefs - these are comforting and supportive friends. But education finally needs to be more than simply comforting and merely reinforcing. Reach beyond your circle of comfort.
  • The free expression of ideas is a bedrock principle, even though not all that is thought or said is equally valid or true. The corollary of the freedom of speech is the freedom to criticize that which is said. And sometimes this freedom to disagree becomes an obligation. If politeness and civility and mutual respect form the basis of our community, so too do engagement and debate and, assuredly, disagreement.
  • You are also for the most part incredibly polite. This is a good thing, but politeness and tolerance need not lead to a sort of intellectual or moral relativism that discourages you from challenging ideas with which you disagree.
  • Discussions and calculations about red states and blue states, about tactics and polls, about funds raised and spent, about personal biography - as well as vicious smears that are cloaked in the wink of innuendo - these reduce the great issues of a great republic to a board game. The loser will not be one or another candidate. We shall all lose, because we will have allowed ourselves to be distracted from matters of substance.
So far, so good. (Cliches abound, but that's to be expected.) I appreciate that he mentioned "political values" as a component of diversity, and that he's standing up to "intellectual or moral relativism" (but see Matthew Yglesias's critique of the concept here). As for his foray into the current Presidential campaign, one need only look around (see this post by Andrew Sullivan, for instance). Now the question of course when push comes to shove -- when someone or some group tests the limits of acceptable discourse -- will Wright hold true to these words, or will he give excuses? The last quote raises some doubts as to whether free speech will come up tops:
  • We are sustained by vigorous discourse, as well as by respect and civility. Now, your right to challenge these values, or any others, is clear. But as president I assume the obligation to define and defend them and to protect here a learning community that welcomes us all - a community where, regardless of our race or gender or sexual orientation, we are all respected and valued and one in which different political and religious views are encouraged.
I'm all for civility, and happen to think that there's not enough of it going around. But I'm wary when Wright says that he's going to define respect and civility "to protect here a learning community that welcomes us all - a community where, regardless of our race or gender or sexual orientation." There's much potential for abuse here. I'm wondering if it'd be feasible for these standards to be defined by the community itself. After all, they're the ones who are affected by them, not Wright himself. But how would that be done?

That's a hypothetical question, of course, since defining the limits of discourse is one of those prerogatives that no leader of whatever political or ideological persuasion, and in whatever context, would willingly cede. In any case, despite what the Review might say, Wright is not a bad president, and Dartmouth is not UC Berkeley. Sure, Dartmouth may have speech codes, but you don't find it on the front pages of FIRE or (correct me if I'm wrong), and Wright doesn't find himself in the headlines for trying to close down student government. From the few times I've met and interacted with him, he doesn't come across as a wild-eyed partisan. Take the SLI, for instance. When was the last time we heard about that? It's long since lost any meaning and direction. Dartmouth's frats are scarcely worse off than they were five years ago, give or take a few traditions like Psi U's keg jump. And conservative views are fairly prominent -- relatively speaking -- within the community -- go to World Affairs Council or PoliTalk, for instance; or talk to Douglas Irwin, Andrew Samwick, Allan Stam, or Allen Koop in the faculty.Things really aren't that bad, and Wright's rhetoric -- which will hopefully translate into reality -- is evidence of that.