Learning How to Be Together

November 17, 2016

We will all take different lessons from the unprecedented and tumultuous election of Donald J. Trump. Here is one: The past 18 months have shown us that we have forgotten, or perhaps never really knew, how to see one another. On both sides of this hard-fought battle, many people see that their needs, wants, and ideas — their lives — are not being accounted for, are not being considered by those in authority. Simply put, that they do not matter to those in power.

As we sift through the data and the analyses and our own experiences in the aftermath, people will talk about this election, rightly, in my view, as a revealing and heightening of racism, misogyny, and elitism. We also talk about it, equally correctly, in terms of structure — structural racism, structural sexism, structural unemployment. The two are hardly exclusive. To root out the deep biases and fear that have risen to the surface in our country, we need to change the structure; to do the hard work necessary to change structures, we have to overcome our biases and fears. None of that will be easy.

Being a community does not mean we must agree. In fact, being able to live with disagreement, give it space, and analyze it is crucial.
But the work will not fully take hold until we really see one another, and that, too, requires active work: asking questions but also listening for answers; paying attention to what is being said and noticing what is left unsaid; acknowledging who is present and making room, literally and conceptually, for those who aren’t there yet.

Even then, when we are all in the room, we have to learn how to be together, how to create a community in which we are all recognized in our diversity, our complexity, our aspirations, and our vulnerabilities.

We talk a lot about our campus communities. Our sharing of classrooms and meeting rooms, residences, cafeterias, and quads makes us necessarily part of a community. But communities are not built merely by our proximity. We are constantly creating the norms and rituals of being with one another, whether by consciously negotiating the terms of our engagements and interactions or, more often, as an unconscious matter of habit or unexamined tradition.

Often we aren’t even conscious of the way this community emerges. The processes of shaping the way we interact, the expectations we set for ourselves and for one another, the way we understand participation and encourage inclusion, the way all of these things function to define, share, and dismantle power, are often invisible to us. We aren’t mindful of them, and we may not be fully aware of the opportunities we’re missing, or the limits we’re imposing, on ourselves and on one another.

Now, as many of us in academe grapple with the question of what our world will look like in the coming years, it’s more important that we do so in a way that acknowledges that our campuses aren’t simply sets of buildings or immovable, isolated institutions but are, rather, made up of the interactions of people who have experienced the world in different ways and may have starkly different visions of how they want that world to be.

Being a community does not mean we must agree — in fact, being able to live with disagreement, give it space, and analyze it is crucial. Seeing the people around us as fully human doesn’t require consensus, but it does require listening, empathy, and rigorous thinking. To disagree in a productive way means we must know, precisely and with clear eyes, what we are supporting or opposing and why, and bringing to the conversation a sincere desire to make things better for everyone, even for those with whom we disagree.

For some of us, the world that was revealed when the election results came in was the world we already knew existed; for others, it was a shock. Either way, we go forward, whether or not we are united in our political aspirations for this country, with a determination to see more and see better.

The need for discourse and critical analysis has never been greater, the need to know and understand never more crucial. And so we make space, we make art, we ask questions, we examine the evidence, and we generate solutions. We listen to our fellow human beings. We get to work.

Mariko Silver is president of Bennington College.