The Campus, THE General Body, and the Meaning of Democracy

 
 
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I want to begin by expressing my strong support for the goals of THE General Body. I believe they are advocating for programs and policies that speak to the strongest ideals of a university. I hope the university community will join them in their efforts.
 
I want to address, however, one specific criticism that has been made against THE General Body. In reading responses to the decision by the students involved to stage a sit-in at Crouse-Hines, I have repeatedly found that their actions are portrayed as immature and outside the norm of civil debate. As such, their actions are somehow insulting to the traditions of Syracuse University.
 
Clearly one of the goals of a university education is to learn how to effectively engage in civil debate. And when all parties are seen as equal, when there is a deliberative space that allows all concerns to be spoken, civil debate should be the primary engine of social change.  The history of the United States, however, consistently demonstrates that such open deliberative space is not always present. At such moments, uncivil actions are staged to puncture through a seeming consensus to provide an avenue for the excluded to have a platform to be heard. To this end, sit-ins, protests, and boycotts have been used by progressives, conservatives, students, professors, community members, and others to demonstrate how the “civil” is actually “uncivil” to those on the outside of power.
 
The actions of THE General Body, to me, represent an important blending of these “civil” and “uncivil” ways of speaking, demonstrating lessons learned on campus and within the larger history in which they occur. THE General Body have written letters and petitions stating their beliefs, spoken effectively (and civilly) to campus administrators. They have also protested on campus, sponsored rallies, and now staged a sit-in. And as a result, the university administration, the student body, and the larger Syracuse community are now involved in an engaged discussion of how to respond to legitimate concerns.
 
To me, their actions are not immature, but part of a historical legacy which speaks to the best values of the university and our larger democratic culture. Many may disagree with THE General Body’s particular goals, their values, but anyone interested in a vibrant democratic culture on campus would do well to study the effectiveness of their actions.

 

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