Beyond intolerance

Two years after I wrote to the Williams College presidential search committee about the need for a more nuanced approach towards racism and intolerance, a new president was hired and a new “Inquiry, Expression and Inclusion” policy has been published. Here’s an excerpt:

Williams College does not consider an invitation to campus an endorsement of the visitor’s views. Further, in our encouragement of vigorous dialogue and the free exchange of ideas, we acknowledge that discomforting encounters will occur. In that knowledge, we will continue expanding ways to offer support to all individuals and groups within our community, as part of our mission to equip every community member with the tools they need for effective discourse, debate and dissent. We also recognize that free expression has its limits: speech that threatens, incites violence, or constitutes harassment has no place in our community.

I think this represents a very important shift away from “we don’t tolerate intolerance” towards “we don’t tolerate violence.” The focus is on actions rather than thoughts. People can think or believe whatever they want, but saying or doing something violent is not ok to the community. The core question becomes “what is violence?” rather than the much less useful “what is intolerance?” After all, intolerance doesn’t hurt — harassment and discrimination does.

I also like the acknowledgement that difficult conversations are difficult! Education and support are needed to help everyone in the community learn to navigate situations involving diversity and disagreement. Our society on the whole is not well prepared for this. It seems logical to me that colleges and universities be on the forefront of this educational mission.

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