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June 17, 2009

imaginea university administration that, when contacted by the media for comment on a story about a protest by faculty and staff, responded, “in a free and open society they have the right to dissent,” or “as members of the academic community they have academic freedom.” Or better yet, imagine university spokespeople responding with, “we are delighted that our institution is home to such vibrant and engaged discussion. That is what universities are for, after all. Obviously the administration has a different perspective, but we welcome the dialogue.” (Imagine a university administration that genuinely recognized that all the members of the university community were “the university.”)

Imagine that.

Not that one can blame university administration who do not respond in one of those ways, at least not here in New Brunswick.

Leaving aside the media monopoly in this province — or even the question of whether one can leave it aside — ours is not a place that encourages the thrust and parry of vigorous discussion. Argument. Not in the sense of unpleasantness, but in the sense of an exchange of ideas, the original meaning of argumentation. A little while ago was talking to someone who resigned from a committee with which she was involved because their inability to allow for differences of opinion became too much of a strain. She reported being at meetings, offering a dissenting view, and voting in the minority. Business as usual as far as she was concerned; let’s move on. But her colleagues could not move on, apparently. They were uncomfortable with lack of consensus. They would phone her at home to try and convince her of their position on things already decided. They interpreted different views as personal differences: with the latter it is often appropriate to keep talking in order to reach a resolution, but with organizational and political differences when a decision-making structure such as voting is in place, there is not usually the need. She could not convince them that she was comfortable disagreeing and being outvoted, that she had had the chance to state her position and trusted to the democratic process. She attributes this dynamic to a culture of “politeness,” though one can’t help thinking that it would be more polite to respect others enough to allow them their own opinions.

Imagine being in a place that welcomed lively debate. A place that encouraged its citizens, from childhood, to question, to form their own opinions, and to articulate those opinions respectfully. Imagine being in a place where different views were not regarded with suspicion and fear. Where you’re not either “with us or agin us.” Where “politeness” and “civility” do not mask inequity and repression. Where people understood that real civility is based on respect, and that respect can best be demonstrated by listening and considering what others have to say. And in many cases, by living with differences.

Imagine that.


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