Thoughts on Compassionate Discourse

This post is part of a series of reflections on the recent events on campus. If you have anything that you would like to contribute, please feel free to reach out to us at staff[at]wesleying[dot]org.

The past few weeks have seen a lot of turmoil within our community, most notably the hospitalizations and arrests, and reactions to them, both within and beyond Wesleyan. I hope to speak to the ways that we have addressed these events, as well as other contentious issues, namely the DKE lawsuit and the recent WSA meetings concerning first generation students and institutional structure.

At times like these, it is important to talk to each other, in order to process, to heal, and to examine the needs of our communities. These are events that we should discuss, both as individuals and community members. All too frequently, however, the way we’ve been discussing them has led to more pain, frustration, and division within our community.

Rather than creating spaces to support each other while addressing problems, many of the discussions I’ve witnessed, both in person and in online forums, have allowed ideological and experiential differences to further divide us, leaving many students, myself included, feeling hurt, angry, or cynical. It’s important to note, though, that I have also heard many calls for kind and supportive dialogue. It is in that spirit that I share the following observations and requests.

Most importantly, be kind. No one needs mean-spiritedness, negativity, or fear-mongering, especially now. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to feel angry. Our expressions of anger should not come at the expense of others, though. We should be sensitive to the effects of our anger and do our best to moderate those effects.

Target ideas, not people. There is a big difference between telling someone they are doing or saying terrible things, and telling them they are a terrible person. While actions reflect on individuals, and you can and should protect yourself from people whose actions or beliefs seem harmful, responding to someone by attacking the individual isn’t the answer. Say how the beliefs being expressed affect you, say how they might affect others, explain why they are problematic, but don’t say, “You are an inherently shitty person.”

Recognize the context of the conversation you’re having and adapt. There are many, many conversations that can and should be had, but that doesn’t mean they are always appropriate. This is dependent on time, place, and with whom you are talking. There are conversations I have with a few close friends that I wouldn’t have with a large group in Usdan. There are conversations I have started, only to realize they were adversely affecting others and needed to wait. There are also times when calls to stop a certain conversation are attempts to silence that conversation. We must try to distinguish between silencing attempts and real need for kindness and understanding. A conversation needs to stop if it is hurting members of our community, particularly when those people have already been hurt.

Try not to make assumptions about the experiences of others. This applies both to people you know and are close to and to people you do not know. My close friend may have struggles I am unaware of, and my failure to recognize this can cause them pain. The person with whom I am arguing likely also has experiences I know nothing about. My assessment of others often translates to how I treat them, how much care I feel they “deserve” from me. Given how suspect these assessments are, especially when we assume others feel or hurt less than we do, it’s important to, at the very least, be somewhat critical about our own opinions of our peers.

Learn how to express your own wrongdoing. You aren’t always going to believe the “right” thing. Perhaps you didn’t have enough information, perhaps you’d never encountered a particular situation or perspective before, perhaps you just didn’t think. When this happens, and someone points it out to you, it’s so important to be able to say, “Shit, I’m so sorry, I fucked up.” It’s also important to check your impulse to explain why. While there are many reasons that you might accidentally hurt someone, and it is important to identify them, saying “I didn’t mean to offend you, I just didn’t know/didn’t think/was asking a question,” can often sound like a request for forgiveness. We do not always deserve forgiveness from people we harm or offend, especially in imbalanced relationships. To give excuses, particularly if your hope is to redeem yourself, often reads as a failure to recognize wrongdoing and a transferring of responsibility to those expected to “understand.”

A final note: Most of these reminders are most applicable to those of us in positions of privilege, whatever that privilege might be. Types of privilege include, but aren’t limited to: white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, physical ability-based privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, educational privilege, and privilege related to mental health. Some of what I ask is not fair or even possible for people without such privilege(s): there are times when it is not okay to ask someone to stop being angry, to stop talking, or to assume best intent, because to do so is to put the onus of promoting compassionate discourse on those who have been shown the least compassion. I speak not to them, but to anyone and everyone able to check how they engage with others.

My hope is that most of us believe in acknowledging our privilege: not as an apology, but as recognition of the ways in which our lives are made easier than–and sometimes at the expense of–the lives of others. I am aware that this is not a reality, even here; some of the disagreements I am responding to are a result of failures to acknowledge privilege. To anyone who can and will listen, then: please, explore and acknowledge your privilege. Consider the needs of your peers. Be kind.

Further reading:
ztevenz‘ earlier post: Reflections on the Recent Hospitalizations, Arrests and Wesleyan
Resources about privilege: Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege [abridged] Forms of privilege
Katherine Crossgreat post on anger in online activism, and its follow up

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Compassionate Discourse


    It’s an interesting approach, considering that most of us never retain the minute facts anyway.Can you give more details about Songbird 1.0.

  2. dlvryby

    sometimes you catch more flies with vinegar than honey and I think this *very well-written piece* loses that fact in its rhetoric.


    I really liked this until the end. I think everyone can try and be kind no matter what they have faced in life. Just because you have been wronged, you don’t have to wrong others. Coming from personal experience, I can’t see how someone who has been oppressed should want to do the same to others. (or, truthfully, I can see how they might want to inside, but what ultimately puts an end to this is not wanting to turn into the monster yourself, though sometimes it is the “system” that is the monster.) However, not aiming to engage in hurtful dialogue does not preclude voicing your opinions, concerns, and being an advocate for yourself and community. Additionally, I certainly don’t fault any person who believes themselves to be oppressed if they do act antagonistically toward others because people have certainly lived difficult lives.
    The reason I’m making these statements is because when trying to fight these systems of “oppression”, it is often people who are attacked. And while you might think you are speaking out against so called “privileged people” you have no idea where anyone comes from. Ok, so someone is white, and let’s agree they have white privilege, they can still be low-income, have spent time in foster car, have faced an abusive childhood, have chronic anxiety, have Chrons disease– maybe you assume they’re straight, but they’ve just never come out because they grew up in a place where they would have faced physical and verbal harassment if they had. Many people are privileged in one way and not privileged in many other areas. I think we are all privileged for be able to go to a school like Wesleyan. I think kind and compassionate discourse is something we can ask for from everyone. Some people might not be able to do that yet, but they can try. After all, what is the point in fighting oppression, if the victims then simply become the oppressors themselves.
    Sorry about the incoherent internet ranting, too long, do read, but example: I think that it’s okay to say white privilege exists in our society without calling out people and saying YOU are privileged because you are white.

    1. kitab

      Thanks for responding, and for doing so the way you did.
      I agree that people can (and probably should) be kind even if they are victims of oppression.
      My point, however, is that we can only ask people to be kind when they are able. While an underprivileged person can expect kind behavior from themself, it is not okay for me–or anyone–to ask someone without certain privilege to put the needs of others in front of their own.

      I also object to the idea that when the extremely oppressed do not, for example, suppress their anger, they are perpetrating oppression. Hurting people is not necessarily the same as oppression. My feelings might be hurt when a person less privileged then myself engages in less-than-compassionate discourse, but that’s not oppression.

      I appreciate the point about intersectionality. Still, lacking privilege in certain respects does not negate your privilege in others. See this article for a great explanation of how white privilege benefits even extremely under-privileged people:
      On a related note, I don’t agree that it’s not okay to remind individuals of their privileges, at least visible privileges. Yes, we should take care not to make assumptions about others, but a white (or white-appearing) person IS privileged because they are white, even if they are not privileged in other ways.

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