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Friday, March 06, 2015

Good communication makes good neighbors

Last night, officials of the local public school district of the town in which my alma mater and employer, Gordon College, is situated, voted to discontinue holding their high school graduation in the Gordon chapel.

I've read that the school committee meeting was packed out with local residents and others, many with commitments to both the town and the college, and several wearing "We Stand With Gordon" stickers. Presumably these stickers identified their wearers as in favor of continuing to hold the public high school's graduation on the private college's campus (despite some high school students' principled discomfort with the connection).

The rhetoric of "We Stand With Gordon" in this case is concerning in two fundamental ways. First, it suggests that loyalty to (signified by rhetorically and politically "standing with") the college manifests in a single position. Obviously, when community members, including both high school students and town residents who also work at or are graduates of the college, disagree and indeed are personally conflicted over the complicated, intensely felt issues at stake, to assert solidarity with an institution as solidarity with an institution's political stance is unthoughtfully simplistic at best and manipulatively deceptive at worst. Gordon is here, at point X, and We align ourselves unyieldingly with that singular point. The point here being the official college campaign to keep hosting the high school graduation.

There, then, is the more poignant problem with "We Stand With Gordon": the loyalty rhetoric is self-serving and oppositional. In a meeting of the community, hosted by public servants elected to represent a diversity of neighbors in support of a common goal -- that is, educating teenaged and younger students -- it is offensive to assert primary and rhetorically combative association with a local college claiming to be interested in maintaining good relations with its neighbors through providing a service (facility use at minimal cost).

It is not that members of the community cannot be in favor of continuing the college's hosting role. Rather, that that preference is asserted as support for the college in opposition to the town and high school, not in support of or relationship with those neighbors.

One contributing factor to this complicated community conflict is that the position stickers come from a more widely political movement situating Gordon College as a victim of persecution at the hands of formerly friendly institutions. It is Gordon-against-the-world, and when a long-standing, intricately connected relationship hits a particular bump -- proposed discontinuance of previous facility use -- the knee-jerk "We Stand With" response is to assert Gordon's rights and losses. The question becomes one of marketplace values.

It is possible (although unlikely) that this strategy could work as marketing or branding, as the "We Stand" supporters promote a college identity of uniform loyalty, reactionary martyrdom, and self-interest. However, there is no way it works as community relations, nor as critical thinking.

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