Intolerant of Intolerance?: Fracture and Reconciliation at Davidson College
One might presume the realm of legitimate discourse at Davidson College, a leading liberal-arts college, to be fairly broad. After all, an institute of higher education must be able to deal with myriad ethical and political questions. Why, then, did the publication of “Homosexuality against Christian tradition” cause such an uproar—and why did this uproar die down so quickly (Spangler 2009)? The article constituted a breach in the tacit agreement between campus group against publicly asserting hierarchical structures. However, institutions in Davidson used normalizing machinery such as public ritual to symbolically ameliorate the rift, resulting in cathartic social theater that renormalized relations without addressing the underlying tension between groups at Davidson.
The whole process as it occurred at Davidson consists of five steps. Firstly there is tension within stasis; socially constructed barriers restrain any group from asserting ownership (even while they desire to) over any kind of absolute Truth, resulting in a postmodern fragmentation of groups within a democratic structure. Second is the publication of the article, a breach in the constructed barriers between groups and a breach of the perceived social agreement against confrontation. Third is the initial furor following the publication of the article—a crisis mode, characterized by declarations made in anger and the polarization of the campus. Fourth, institutional mobilization kicks in, resulting in negative feedback that generally unifies and symbolically heals Davidson society. Fifth is a sense of renormalization, evinced by marginalization through ridicule of extreme positions and mutual assurances that the breach is an isolated incident and not evidence of underlying conflict in society. All in all, this process illustrates the difficulty of an insurrection of subjugated knowledge within a postmodern, fragmented society.
While the position of the college is one of tolerance, it is not necessarily the position of all individuals within the college. Furthermore, one may assume that individuals (who, being human, assume themselves correct in all instances) will try to persuade others to support their own viewpoints. There are de jure and de facto mechanisms that prevent confrontations of this sort from occurring on a large scale: the de jure endorsement of tolerance, which is in and of itself a declaration of nonconfrontation, and the de facto separation of individuals into social groups. These de facto groups generally share a closer consensus about issues like religious affiliation or sexual orientation than does the entire population—a manifestation of group habitus with common cause, largely dependent upon determining structures like class, sex, and religion (Durkheim 1895:88). This entire structure stifles dialogue and avoids confrontation between groups, while keeping each party convinced of its own correctness.
As a way of understanding the de facto separation of social groups on campus, consider what would have happened if an article of similarly controversial tone were to be published not in the Davidsonian but in a publication with a more specialized audience, such as the artsy Libertas or pedantic Davidson Reader. Ostensibly it would not have caused such a controversy; in truth, we have a real analogue with which to compare “Homosexuality against Christian tradition.” The same author published the slightly less salacious but perhaps more contentious “Call the Sabbath a Delight” in the Reader not a month before, to much less clamor amidst the student population. The difference is that the student population perceives the Davidsonian as a public space, common ground that does not belong to any one social group as might the Reader. When “Homosexuality against Christian tradition” was published, with its assertion that the author knew something that the readers did not know (an implicit condemnation of those readers), the audience felt as if their sovereignty had somehow been violated. In essence, the leap from publishing in the Reader to in the Davidsonian was the difference between claiming a relative truth—a truth-within-a-group—and an absolute Truth, and, by claiming ownership over that Truth, attempting to impose hierarchy where there was before equality.
It can be seen from the paragraph above that there is a ‘normal’ structure in which groups that hold similar opinions (‘relative truths’) are nonconfrontational due to de jure and de facto social mechanisms. An assertion of truth in a public space—the pages of the Davidsonian—is an assertion of absolute Truth, and comprises an intrusion on the ‘relative truths’ held by different groups. In this case, the publicly orthodox view is tolerance, and the publicly heterodox view is private religious reservation about homosexuality (kept private largely by a cultural separation, especially among young students of vastly differing backgrounds, of the public and political from the personal and religious). The publication of the article was outside the doxa of the group not because it was religiously informed but because it was so public (Bourdieu 1977:164). It was therefore a breach from what was considered the realm of legitimate discourse. Rumors about the nature of the article preceded its publication as individuals wondered at the audacity of the author to breach such a subject, in such a way, so publicly. The flows and rhythms of normal social life were interrupted and forced a period of reaction.
In response to this disequilibrium, several Davidson institutions took action in a way that suggests a negative feedback loop, like the homeostasis of the human body. Institutions that mobilized responses that denounced the opinions expressed in the article include Leadership Davidson (Moment of Loudness), the Chaplain’s Office (Homosexuality & Christianity), GSA (movie viewings), the faculty (resolution passed against homophobia), the Health Advisors (petition for tolerance), and the Davidsonian itself (in the form of multiple responses, including some submitted by readers). I will focus on the “Homosexuality & Christianity” gathering organized by the College Chaplain’s office.
Interest in this meeting was widespread, and the mood in the 900 Room that night was electrifying, to the extent that several students expressed a desire for a physical altercation. This confrontation never came, and indeed this end was an aim of the meeting itself: Reverend Spach ameliorated all parties by presenting a view of Presbyterianism that did not come to the conclusions espoused by the original article. The talk, which was ritualistic and conducted in a liminal space, contributed to this sense of amelioration, which I argue is simultaneously normalizing machinery.
The 900 Room was extremely crowded that night. The talk had the feeling of a public ritual designed to address the grievances of different parties; in this way, it functioned as a safety valve for the pressure built up in response to the article. As Chaplain, Reverend Spach offered the College’s official position on the religious question, but it was clear from the questions and statements offered by the student body that religious considerations were largely rejected in favor of secular ones. Nonetheless, the event should be considered a ritual rather than a spectacle because it was focused on efficacy (repairing the breach) rather than entertainment; because observation was not independent of action; and because individuals conveyed themselves symbolically, speaking “as a bisexual” or “as a Christian” (Beeman 1993:379).
Liminality, to borrow from the language of Turner, is a transitional stage, in which the status of the individual is socially ambiguous (Beeman 1993:371). Reverend Spach’s instructions to those gathered are evidence of this liminal status: he implored individuals to come together as a community, to leave behind preconceptions, and to let what is said in this room not leave this room, thereby demarcating the everyday Davidson from the Davidson of that time and place. Speakers’ words literally could not be part of their everyday social identity. This allowed individuals to air concerns that would elsewhere go unspoken, and Reverend Spach emphasized many times that individuals of all opinions were to be accepted at the talk, to an overall cathartic effect.
The entire sequence up to this point—equilibrium, publication, disequilibrium, normalization—can be understood as social drama. In Turner’s anthropology of social theater, the implicit rhetorical struggle over the truth/Truth about how the College should position itself in relation to homosexuality spilled over into an overt drama—the publication of “Homosexuality against Christian tradition.” This breach activated implicit social processes such as the polarization of opinions about homosexuality on campus, and led to manifest performances such as the liminally situated ritual led by Reverend Spach in the 900 Room, as well as other normalizing machinery. These are the mechanisms by which society “reacts against me so as to prevent my act before its accomplishment, or to nullify my violation” (Durkheim 1895:85).
But is this normalizing machinery, in fact, repressive machinery? A number of the subsequent, student-submitted responses to the article presented alternative views beyond the ‘for’ and ‘against’ that dominated the initial stages of reaction to “Homosexuality against Christian tradition.” These include “Spangler’s article sparks important debate,” which crystallized complex attitudes towards the initial article, essentially rejecting the content of his argument while celebrating the audacity and authenticity of the author (O’Donnell 2009). This was a common position amongst the student population. This raises a further point, which I have already alluded to: is the publication of the article an insurrection of a subjugated knowledge, per Foucault’s definition? Can the intolerant view of a minority in a tolerant majority at Davidson be compared to the causes that Foucault had in mind? Nonetheless, throwing out the question of whether his argument is faulty or not, the heart of the original article could be seen as a “bloc of historical knowledge which [was] present but disguised…disqualified as inadequate to [its] task or insufficiently elaborated: naïve” (Foucault 203). The paradigm he advances is one whose meaning is local and specific, and he rhetorically recalls the historical high points of this paradigm; “Homosexuality in the Christian tradition” created a metanarrative, linearly connecting Jesus, John Calvin, the “staunch Calvinist” founders of Davidson, and (implicitly) the author himself (Spangler 2009).
This may be the metanarrative of a specific individual or social group, but in a structure that rejects metanarrative, what can be the result? As we have seen in this example, the result is a failed insurrection of subjugated knowledge due to institutional inertial responses causing negative feedback and renormalization. “Power is essentially that which represses” (Foucault 1972:219), but the truth is that due to the fragmented nature of Davidson society, nearly all of the normalizing machinery did not act specifically upon any one group and was indeed in danger of ‘preaching to the choir,’ resulting in a post-breach structure that is still in conflict with itself. There is tension not only between groups (because they possess different metanarratives) but also between the specific groups and the structure itself (which are on the one hand desirous of and antithetical to hierarchy). Power exists only in action, but there are numerous institutions of formal and informal nature that act to prevent exercise of power like the failed insurrection—of course, these institutions must paradoxically themselves use power (normalizing machinery) to assure that the final social outlook is none too different from before.
In sum, the entire social drama from beginning to end was a big deal because it was a public assertion of an absolute Truth, antithetical to the fragmented structure of Davidson society; it did not become any bigger a deal because of normalizing machinery implemented by institutions such as the Chaplain’s office; and the fact that these institutional reactions were successful speaks to the difficulty of an insurrection of subjugated knowledge in an environment like Davidson’s. The ambiguity, and the next question to ask, lies in how much of this failure is due to “forcing a group to take cognizance of its own behavior in relation to its own values” and how much is due to social inertia against insurrections of any nature (Turner 1982:92).
Beeman, William O.
1993. The Anthropology of Theater and Spectacle. Annual Review of Anthropology, 1993:22:369-393.
1977. Structure, Habitus, Power: Basis for a Theory of Symbolic Power. In Culture/Power/History, Nicholas Dirks, Geoff Eley, Sherry Ortner, eds. Pp. 155-199. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
1895. What Is a Sociological Fact? In Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History, Jon McGee, Richard Warms, eds. Pp. 85-91. New York: McGraw-Hill.
1977. Two Lectures. In Culture/Power/History, Nicholas Dirks, Geoff Eley, Sherry Ortner, eds. Pp. 200-221. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1979. Panopticism. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, pp. 195- 228. New York: Vintage Books.
2009. Spangler’s article sparks important debate. The Davidsonian, November 11: Editorial.
2009. Call the Sabbath a Delight. The Davidson Reader, Fall 2009. Pp. 4-5.
2009. Homosexuality against Christian tradition. The Davidsonian, November 4: Editorial.
1982. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publication.
 I refer to this condition as ‘postmodern’ in that it mirrors the way in which postmodernism has a place for all perspectives, thereby marginalizing each perspective as only as good as the next, only one amidst a crowd.
 I will return to this point later on by questioning whether ‘equality’ in fact constitutes its own hierarchy, and whether Spangler’s articles can be considered a Foucauldian insurrection of subjugated knowledge.
 Alternately, can a racial minority be racist?
 Which, of course, includes the genealogy of alternate sexualities.
 In other words, if I was going to write another ten pages, it would be on the subject of whether society differentiates between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ repression.