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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Town hall meeting proves pointless

<cuments That Guide Us meeting, student after student stood and complained that Carleton’s core documents cause the college to take an insufficiently active role in fighting a wide variety of forms of injustice and discrimination on campus. I am in no position to either affirm or deny the validity of these complaints, and have no intention of trying to do so here. However, as someone who attended this meeting without a prior agenda, I have to say that I was deeply disappointed by what was not discussed. There was virtually no attempt made to deal with the substance of the issues; rather, we participated in a prolonged session of condemnation of problems that, in nearly every instance, remained so vague and generalized that the entire session was an extended exercise in futility.

So far as I could see, nobody suggested that these documents state goals that are undesirable, or even that they are not sufficiently broad and inclusive in their scope. Carleton’s founding documents seem to take up positions that are virtually unassailable in their aims – and so we spent an hour and a half railing against their lack of specificity and the fact that Carleton fail to meet certain of these aims.

This failure is clearly a problem that deserves serious consideration. However, attempting to attribute this failure to a lack of detail in a mission statement is futile. A mission statement is not meant to be a policy or program, nor is meant to be a specific plan designed to solve a specific problem. Rather, a mission statement’s purpose is merely to establish the shared values upon which these policies and programs can be evaluated. We cannot solve Carleton’s problems by putting more active language in the mission statement, nor can we solve them by posting these statements around campus. People do not base their behavior on mission statements, and, in any event, you would be hard-pressed to find even a single Carleton student who has substantive disagreements with the sentiments expressed by these documents. Any attempt to resolve the problems which the school does face through the production of more statements is pointless beyond compare.

The failings are ours, and not those of the mission statements. We who attended that meeting are responsible because we allowed ourselves to continue to rail endlessly against injustices that everyone already agreed are wrong and require remedy. A strongly-worded statement against discrimination is not what is needed. We have more than enough of those. And demanding action is useless, too, so long as that action remains unspecified.

What is useful is specificity. At my table in the meeting, we achieved a useful conversation by avoiding generalities, and rather focused on one particular issue – the perceived social separation of international students from the general student body. We also discussed a variety of specific possible solutions – changing the format of NSW and international student orientation to foster bonding between these two groups in those crucial first days at Carleton, for instance. Whether or not you agree that international students are socially separated, or whether this is a problem, or whether the possible solutions are desirable is beside the point: it is this sort of grounded discussion which has the potential to yield substantive results. When nothing is specific, when there is no proposed plan for some concrete action to be taken – and action doesn’t mean re-wording a few documents – then there is really no possibility that the conversation can become more than meaningless words.

Lofty, soaring rhetoric can leave you feeling that you’re battling against great forces of oppression, that you are engaging in important work. But, once a community has reached the point – as Carleton has – at which there is a basic agreement on goals, such language becomes useless. If there are serious social problems at Carleton, let’s confront them. But we aren’t going to do it with more meetings like the Documents That Guide Us. If you see a problem, the answer is not to fault the campus culture as a whole; such an approach cannot produce results because it identifies a culprit so large and amorphous that it cannot be realistically confronted. Instead, identify the specifics of the problem and propose a specific policy solution. Only at the point that a distinct topic has been identified is it possible to engage in a useful conversation that can result in a solution.

Challenging all injustice head-on sounds nice, but the problems that people encounter in the real world are not do not spring identically from any single flaw in society or culture; they individual and distinct, and therefore require specific discussion and attention. A piecemeal approach doesn’t have quite the same glamour as a crusade, but it is also the only possible means of creating anything more than another grand document that nobody reads.

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