Public Engagement

Kayla Edwards ‘20

All of my conversations about Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court have happened in private spaces: on a walk past the graveyard on campus, in a corner of Toast during Hurricane Michael, and over text after listening to the  “658: The Unhappy Deciders” episode from the This American Life podcast. Conveniently, these conversations all happened with people, who through hours of discussions about the existential and moral dilemmas of college over the past 2 years and 8 weeks, generally believe me to be a rational person with a soul. These conversations occurred in the most protected spaces. However, Davidson’s purpose of  “developing humane instincts” in students such that we may live lives of “leadership and service” necessitates having high stakes discussions in places where we feel less individually secure.

To be sure, I didn’t think I needed to publicly weigh in on the Kavanaugh hearings. For the last several weeks, I’ve had at least 10 different New Yorker articles opened on my computer related to the confirmation. I wasn’t going to contribute anything to the public discourse that Jia Tolentino and Masha Gessen hadn’t already said with better vocabularies.

Even ignoring insecurity about my writing, I understood that victims of sexual assault had become involuntary consumers of everyone’s opinion through the constant updates on Twitter, The New York Times, and Instagram Stories. The debate quickly centered around moral frameworks. The stakes were too high. Nothing I was going to say would fix the systematic problems that had existed long before Anita Hill appeared before the Senate in 1991. Then, I was forced to confront my silence by a quickly approaching deadline on my calendar.

Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard, MacArthur Assistant Professor of Sociology at Davidson College, has this inconspicuously radical assignment on the syllabus for her course “Refugees, Migrants, and the Stateless.” It reads, “Opinion Piece-15%: We have a compelling mandate to contribute knowledge to the public conversation. Your opinion piece should range from 700-900 words, and respond to a piece of news regarding migration and migration policy that is fewer than 2 days old… You will submit for publication in print media like Time and the Wall Street Journal or internet outlets like Slate and Salon.”

This “compelling mandate to contribute knowledge to the public conversation” is deeply rooted in Davidson’s call for students to take on “lives of leadership and service.” As the Perspectives editor of The Davidsonian, I firmly believe in the power of words to initiate new ideas and expand our idea of possible realities. And yet, even I need to be reminded that pursuing  leadership and service necessitates clearly communicating our ideas (supported by evidence and rigorous editing). How can we lead or serve others if we don’t publicly communicate who we are or how we believe we can improve our communities?

Dr. Deckard’s assignment gives students permission to engage in discourse about issues outside of Davidson’s zip code–fully recognizing our responsibility as young adults supported by the immense privilege of a liberal arts education and access to professors and students who can challenge our beliefs. Davidson professors can, following the lead of Dr. Deckard and others, encourage this type of learning by assigning opinion pieces in their classes.

And yet, there is still a deterrent to participation: the issues we are publicly debating feel inaccessible. How can we engage on an issue when so often, many see the debate as a clear moral question? When the lives of vulnerable individuals are on the line, how do we debate policy? There is no “right” answer to these questions.

In her opinion piece “Time For A Detox: How The Sugar High Of Certainty Impairs Speaking About Speech,” recently published by Forbes, President Carol Quillen provides an initial entry point to navigating these dilemmas. She encourages the proponents of free speech on college campuses to “examine with [young people] how the noblest of aspirations can morph into rigidly oppressive ideologies” and to “explore how intricate conflicts get reduced to a stark either/or choice, and how complex human beings come to be defined by or identify with only one attribute that then rationalizes their marginalization.” She challenges readers to resist discussing issues as if they have one “correct” answer and to recognize how assuming there is one answer has historically limited our collective worldview.

In effect, we should avoid both the temptations and restrictions imposed by a requirement of  certainty–giving ourselves the permission to be wrong about things. When we recognize our inability to fully know anything and choose to speak anyway, we recognize the validity of our voices as part of a larger historical conversation. In acknowledging the high stakes nature of our current debates and the real lives that exist beyond our hot takes, we are, as President Quillen writes, invited “to use language with care, to recognize crucial distinctions, to base claims on facts and to put forth analytically rigorous, nuanced arguments.” We start using our language to lead.

Kayla Edwards ‘20 is a Political Science major from Davidsonville, Maryland. Contact her at kaedwards@davidson.edu

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