Oxford, Ohio 45056
(513) 529-1950 fax
November 13, 1998
The disturbances of this past week which resulted in Wednesday's arrest of seven students trouble me deeply. These unfortunate episodes caught many of us, myself included, by surprise. They came after a year of significant progress by our university, a year of soul-searching, of drawing together to protest hateful acts, of planning, and stretching ourselves to build the accepting community to which we all aspire. Just a few weeks ago, a distinguished member of our faculty told me that he sensed a lessening of anger and tension on campus. Was it possible, I wondered, that Miami had finally turned the corner on her most difficult of challenges?
My optimistic sense of forward momentum has been instantly dissipated by the recent events. Once again, a despicable crime provoked members of our community to rise in protest and to express their frustration at a university that had not, they believed, lived up to its ideals. Once again, our campus became engulfed by a sense of crisis. Once again, mistrust, accusations, and hostility held sway over acceptance and understanding and healing. To my sorrow, the gap which had painstakingly been narrowing over the past months suddenly widened again.
What are we to learn from the events of the past days? The obvious lesson, of course, is that all is not well on our campus -- that the racial divides of our society still exist in our community, that hateful acts still take place at Miami University, that debased persons still live in our presence, that much remains to be accomplished.
But I believe there is another lesson to be learned from these events as well, and that is how extraordinarily fragile human societies can be. Understanding and tolerance are delicate blossoms that require constant nurturing and attention. They can be destroyed by the cold wind of a terrorist's bomb or by a single hateful message scrawled on a wall. It is a sad fact of life that those who would tear down a community have a far easier job than those who would build it up.
In the end, our only weapons against hatred and intolerance are words. Talk is not cheap; words, in fact, are our most precious possession, a gift of extraordinary power. Only through talking to one another can we lay to rest the tensions and misunderstandings and hostility that erode our community.
Since my arrival at Miami in 1996 I have spoken many times about the necessity for constructive dialogue. In my first speech to the University community, I spoke of a faculty member's concerns that "Miami is a place without institution-wide conversations about significant issues." A year later, I asked whether we were engaging in the kind of dialogue that facilitates mutual understanding and cooperation, or whether we were mired in an "unproductive rhetoric that reinforces entrenched positions and closes minds?"
I hope that the events of recent days will cause us all to reflect on the nature of healthy dialogue. Consider, for example, the impact on our university of public protests and demonstrations by those who have been unjustly treated. Most of us would agree that peaceful public demonstrations have an appropriate role in a university community. They provide a forum for persons to express their passions and convictions, to draw attention to issues, to sensitize a community or jolt it out of complacency. We are a nation founded on the freedom of expression, and protests and demonstrations are important vehicles for manifesting that freedom.
But just as demonstrations and protests can ensure that some voices will be heard, unless properly channeled, they can also stifle or inhibit other voices. If laws are broken, or the rights of others are interfered with, demonstrations create broad resentment that impedes understanding. If ultimatums and "demands" are issued, or acquiescence is sought through the threat of disruption, then reasoned negotiation and due process are perverted by the raw struggle for power. If complex issues are stripped to sound bites, if the good will and motives of others are impugned, then anger and mistrust inevitably displace reasoned discourse. In such instances the health of the community is undermined in a way that benefits no one and advances no principle.
We are now participants in yet another important dialogue about race relations in the Miami community. There are those among us who are frustrated and unhappy and angry. There are those among us who are fearful and discouraged. Let us resolve to listen to their voices with open minds and hearts. Let us resolve to speak out once again against hate and intolerance. And let each of us resolve to contribute to the kind of discourse that furthers understanding and reduces the gap that has widened so unfortunately in recent days.
James C. Garland