Symbols and Intolerance
March 4, 2012
To the Bowdoin Community,
Last week, dishwashers in Thorne Hall discovered swastikas drawn on the bottom of a couple of serving plates in Thorne Hall. This matter was disclosed in the weekly security report and published in the Bowdoin Orient. It has also been listed in the Campus and Community Index created at the start of this academic year.
In a message yesterday evening, a student asked why “The Administration” hasn’t spoken out about all of this. We don’t know who drew the swastikas, why, or when they did it. All we know is that it happened. While we continue to investigate the circumstances, I will state categorically that this act clearly violates what we stand for at Bowdoin.
Symbols are important in our society, and as a modern symbol of Nazism and white supremacy, the swastika is obviously repugnant, offensive, and threatening to many. It has to be enormously frustrating to us all for this kind of behavior to continue to occur on our campus. I speak, write, and send messages about these issues all the time. Each year, in my opening remarks to students, we talk about the characteristics and expectations of our community. Last year’s “I Am Bowdoin” events and the “Beyond the Bowdoin Hello” lectures and discussions held just over a month ago were powerful conversations about our community and our standards. Yet, once again I find myself writing about cowardly and hateful vandalism.
Last week, the public discourse about contraception spiraled completely out of control when a national radio talk-show host viciously attacked a Georgetown University student (I highly recommend President John J. DeGioia’s message to the Georgetown community about all of this). On our own campus, we have recently received several email messages from people angry about an article in the February 17th edition of the Orient that they saw as disrespectful of the Mormon faith. In both instances, this speech is clearly protected by the First Amendment, and in the second case, the Orient can be commended for publishing a different view . I am not attempting to draw a parallel between stating one’s opinion through open discourse and defacing College property covertly with a symbol of bigotry and hate. But I am asking us all to consider the kind of interaction, conversation, and debate that we want to promote at Bowdoin. In my view, intolerance must be confronted whenever it takes place.
I am told often that email messages like this are ineffective. I suspect that may be true, given the number of messages we all send and receive on a daily basis. Candidly, I vacillate between an impulse to say “just another incredibly stupid act” and move on, and the need to raise the issue in a message like this to all of you. We simply cannot and should not respond every time some dumb act occurs. To do so gives the offenders way too much power over us all. But with this message, “The Administration” has spoken out once again. The much more effective response is for you—the members of our community—to speak and to keep speaking.
Bowdoin is a part of the world—we can never make this kind of bigotry disappear entirely. That said, bigotry and racism are wrong, and they have no place at Bowdoin. This is place of intellectual inquiry focused on the pursuit of knowledge. In that spirit, let’s engage, argue, debate and disagree—but let’s do so with courage, intelligence, respect, and civility.