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Colloquium allows civil discussion

Should MIT divest? So far, the "dialogue" between members of the Coalition Against Apartheid and the administration has involved chants of "Divest Now" and assertions of "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say . . ."

Four years ago, it was much the same. I was a freshman then, and I remember the shantytown on Kresge Oval -- how it lingered and became a focus for every issue on campus, from food workers' demands to calls for graduate student housing. Finally, it was destroyed and students arrested. The issue culminated (and then faded away) with a meeting between the Undergraduate Association and Graduate Student Council presidents and the Executive Committee of the Corporation.

This time, there is hope for serious dialogue. The Undergraduate Association and the Graduate Student Council are sponsoring a colloquium in which President Paul E. Gray '54 will speak directly to the issue of divestment and engage the community in a neutral forum. A pro-divestment representative will present arguments and attempt to counter the points Gray will make. With mutual respect and civility, we will have a discussion instead of a shouting match or a protest.

People at MIT tend to fear confrontation. Understandably, we fear violent confrontations that achieve nothing and endanger students and others. But understanding requires confrontation. One of the problems in this debate and many others on campus is the frustrating inability to engage the people whose interests conflict. Members of one viewpoint make statements and assertions. Opponents respond. But this is not debate -- it is rhetoric. To really understand the issue, we must evaluate how well the arguments stand up in real time. It is easy to sit back and compose a great speech or essay pro or con. But the true test of the strength of an idea is its durability in the face of conflict.

The purpose of this colloquium is to provide ideas an opportunity for that conflict -- a confrontation of ideas instead of individuals. But the conflict must be carried on by individuals. I challenge both the coalition and Gray to take advantage of this opportunity and confront the issue, not each other.


Dave Atkins '90, a double major in political science and management, is a columnist for The Tech.