Campus forum brings two hours of conversation

Two months ago, a Gustavus student posted two videos on YouTube of footage taken at the school’s first-year orientation. The videos were of two skits shown to incoming first-years: “The Inside Scoop” presented by the Peer Assistants and “E Pluribus Gustavus” by I Am We Are.

The skits are intended to help “new students discuss transition and difference in lifestyles, social issues and environmental changes” and give them the “real ‘scoop’ on Gustavus life” according to the 2010 orientation manual. The skits are each 50 minutes long, while the videos were each around five minutes.

The videos were accompanied by captions that warned of explicit content and “extremely sexually suggestive theatrics.” They featured mostly sexual aspects of the two performances, with characters such as Captain Condom, Abstinence Annie and Betty Birth Control, students talking about their homosexuality, explanations of an acronym including pansexual, bi-curious and transsexual and signals to let your roommate know if you are having sex in the room. The videos elicited many responses from alumni, students and faculty, and were also featured on national websites, including, The Illinois Family Institute website, and countless blogs.

The week of Oct. 15, 2010, Queers and Allies (Q&A) painted the rock on the hill in rainbow colors, which was quickly painted over in black with an anti-homosexuality Bible verse referenced. The Weekly covered this event in its Oct. 15 issue.

In light of these two incidents, a forum on how to engage in civil discourse took place on Nov. 12. The forum began at 2:30 p.m. with three presentations by Jeff Stocco, dean of students, Darrell Jodock, professor of religion and Kate Knutson, professor of political science. David Fienen, dean of the college, introduced the presentations. “Our purpose is to explore the broader concerns of our life together as a community,” Fienen said.

Stocco began by talking about community. “Aren’t we all governed by community standards? Don’t we all want to live and work in a place where we respect the dignity of others?” Stocco asked. He spoke of the fine line administration must walk between regulating free speech too much and not enough and the responsibility the community has to act in a respectful way that makes excessive regulations unnecessary.

Jodock was the second speaker and his focus was what the Lutheran tradition has to say about civil discourse. “There is nothing I am that is not a result of some gift,” Jodock said. “Our existence is a gift.” He said that a gifted person respects mystery in God and other humans, values differing opinions, understands what the Bible can teach without granting it the final word on everything and does not feel the need to be right. These are the most effective ways that Lutheranism can encourage civil disagreement, Jodock said.

Knutson closed with a segment on justice. “I don’t think it’s our primary job to make people feel comfortable at all times,” Knutson said. She spoke about the difficulty of drawing the line between making someone unsafe and making them uncomfortable, the decline of civil discourse in the media and the need to step outside of one’s comfort zone and be “willing to have people disagree with you and maybe not like you.”

The hour-long presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session. Emotion in civil discourse was the first topic addressed by the questions. Kara Barnette, visiting professor of philosophy, asked if there is any civil discourse that acknowledges and makes use of human emotion or if emotion should be completely left out of civil discourse.

Bethany Ringdal, senior religion major, asked if storytelling could perhaps be used as a bridge between emotions and civil discourse. John Cha, professor of religion, said that emotions help civil discourse, citing compassion and understanding as emotional intelligence.

The panelists had the chance to respond after each audience comment. Jodock said that emotion can intentionally inflame emotions, but he cited an example where emotions seemed to help: an exercise where Israelis and Palestinians got together and, without chance for argument, told the other side one thing they wished they knew. Knutson brought up the question of intentions that are impossible for anyone but the perpetrator to know and whether the rock painting was actually intended as an act of hate.

The issue of Gustavus’s presentation to prospective students was also brought up, and panelists were asked about the tension between being a Lutheran college and exposing students to themes that many Lutherans disagree. Knutson said that it is a matter of presentation: the college is targeted differenty to each prospective student and needs to take responsibility for the way it sells itself.

Jodock said that we need to be able to live with the tensions of being in the gray area between Lutheran and non-Lutheran and celebrate the best aspects of both.

Junior Political Science Major Nick Prince asked the panel to elaborate on the issue of the orientation videos. Stocco said the problem arose in the fact that these small slices from much longer presentations ended up representing the entire institution. Knutson said that because there was no dialogue between parties, it was one-way uncivil discourse. She said that it did bring up legitimate concerns and the need to establish a place to bring these concerns besides the public sphere.

The videos incited negative responses from those in the videos. “As a member of orientation, it was an attack on me,” Sophomore and Gustie Greeter Andrei Hahn said. Ringdal said that many students on campus are scared to approach a large group they disagree with, especially if the larger group seems to represent the majority. “Is there a better way to have a forum?” Ringdal asked.

Jodock and Knutson said an option could be a neutral person to approach with concerns.

An audience member questioned the privacy rights of the I Am We Are and Peer Assistant members. Public speech has consequences that we need to be aware of, and people should only speak about things they actually care about, Knutson said. Stocco questioned whether orientation should have rules about who can attend and if that would be a good solution.

Prince asked what Gustavus is saying about the message in these presentations if we are afraid of outside opinions. An audience member who took part in the presentations said that he was proud of the message and only regrets that the unedited versions weren’t available.

Jodock said that the generational differences between students and alumni/parents are an issue that could have contributed to upset responses.

Audience members brought up another example where video clips were taken out of context: the case of former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod.

Edited clips of Sherrod implied that she was racist, and she was subsequently asked to resign from her position. After the unedited video was reviewed in its entirety, the claims proved false and Sherrod was offered a new position. By taking civil discourse seriously, Hahn said, “When we get out into the world, we can change things.”