LETTERS

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May 11, 2017

Divinity School Students Call for More Inclusive Environment in Light of Fulton Brown Controversy

We, the undersigned students, write to address the recent controversy over Rachel Fulton Brown’s February 16 article in Sightings. We welcome commitments made by our administration and faculty to defend students genuinely threatened by harassment. However, we are compelled to contextualize Fulton Brown’s argument in our current political climate and wish to insist on further concrete actions from the Divinity School moving forward. These actions must cultivate an environment where all students are free not merely to express themselves but to exist as they are. No institution can thrive while significant portions of its population are at risk of being marked, targeted, threatened, or silenced.

The publication of Fulton Brown’s article must be understood in its proper context: the escalation of bigotry and its violent effects, both locally and nationally. In fact, the central ideas Fulton Brown relates in her essay resonate with and act as means of harassment and recruitment common to the informal coalition of the self-identified alt-right. The correlations are straightforward. Her praise for Yiannopoulos amplifies his antipathy to trans students and has welcomed threatening anti-trans flyering on our campus by white nationalists. Her selective valorization of European history along with her critiques of the modern academy and so-called multicultural Marxism aligns with the platform of another recently active white nationalist organization. One need not establish whether or not Fulton Brown supports or collaborates with these groups, given the bare ideological similitude. What remains essential is the welcome offered to such individuals and organizations by national politics, University policy, and Sightings editorial standards. Unwittingly or otherwise, the publication of Fulton Brown’s article has provided a platform for the proliferation and mobilization of white supremacy, nativism, and patriarchal chauvinism.

Various interested parties have made public displays defending this kind of speech by resorting to arguments for “freedom of expression.” We find this line of reasoning disingenuous. The University itself deploys the rhetoric even as it threatens student activism with disciplinary action. Sightings, for its part, deferred to freedom of expression only in response to public critiques, none of which took into account the bodies this article endangered or the inability for the response to uproot the cause of bigotry. In both instances, a highly circumscribed idea of free expression has been deployed selectively and after the fact to dismiss criticism out of hand, to defend discriminatory speech, and to leverage "shared ideals" against anyone who merely expresses opposition to established authorities. Under these conditions, “lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation” is impossible.

Freedom of expression cannot exist without freedom of subjects. We take this approach because we firmly believe that students are able to critically assess their ideals and intellectual commitments. Central to Fulton Brown’s critique of the modern academy is her belief that students are passive vessels to be filled by the ideological priorities of their instructors. We reject any characterization of students that assumes we are incapable of discerning the critical quality of arguments. Such characterizations, regardless of whether they come from Fulton Brown, her allies, or her critics, only lend credence to Fulton Brown’s insistence that our rejection of her own particular religious frame is not a practice of discernment but rather an effect of indoctrination. We discern and describe our terrain with analytical categories of race, class, and gender that require capacious critical thinking as well as serious engagement with so-called “politically incorrect” speech, not its avoidance.

Freedom of subjects requires a prior commitment to protecting the physical, emotional, and intellectual security of all people, especially those most concretely and historically threatened: people of color, LGBTQ+, trans, gender non-conforming people, immigrants, undocumented people, women, religious minorities, and people with disabilities. Failure to adhere to these commitments is reflected in the University’s recent Campus Climate Survey, in which students who identify as members of marginalized groups report higher incidence of physical violence, intimidation, discrimination, and harassment. In spite of these facts, University statements have not addressed freedom of subjects, instead focusing on free expression. This preference denigrates the creation of safe spaces and the use of trigger warnings, vital resources both for those who have experienced trauma and for the cultivation of effective educational environments.

Accordingly, we demand that the Divinity School take specific actions to help define the climate and values that we seek to sustain in our shared institution. First, the Diversity Committee at the Divinity School needs to be reformed with official student representation and participation with equal procedural authority.

Second, we request more programing at orientation events to proactively combat current climate issues. Finally, we request annual Divinity School climate surveys with published results and action plans to maintain transparency as we continue to define our institution in the future. With such actions we hope to build the Divinity School as a safe and flourishing environment for all of its students, faculty, and administration.

Sincerely,

Héctor M. Varela Rios    Ph.D. student, Theology         

Anonymous                  Ph.D. candidate, History of Christianity          

Anonymous                  Ph.D. candidate, History of Christianity

William Underwood      A.M. student   

Sara-Jo Swiatek          Ph.D. student, Religious Ethics          

Anonymous Student     Ph.D. student, Religious Ethics          

Greg Chatterley           Ph.D. candidate, Religions in America           

Allison Kanner             Ph.D. student, Islamic Studies

Kiva Nice-Webb          MDiv student   

Diane Picio                  Ph.D. student, Religion, Literature, & Visual Culture

Marielle Harrison         Ph.D. student, History of Religions

Ramzi Nimr                   A.M. student

Foster J. Pinkney         Ph.D. student, Religious Ethics

Charlotte Heltai            A.M. student

Mendel Kranz              Ph.D. student, Philosophy of Religions

Daniel Wyche              Ph.D. candidate, Philosophy of Religions

Maryam Sabbaghi        Ph.D. student, Islamic Studies

Ernest A. Brooks III      A.M. student

Danielle DeLano          A.M. student

Nathan J. Hardy           Ph.D. student, History of Christianity

David J. Cohen             Ph.D. student, History of Judaism

Elizabeth Sartell          Ph.D. student, Islamic Studies

Raúl Zegarra                Ph.D. student, Theology

Kelly Holob                  Ph.D. student, Bible

Samantha Pellegrino   A.M. student

Alex Matthews            Ph.D. student, Islamic Studies

Olivia Bustion             Ph.D. student, Theology

Shelly Tilton               A.M. student

Aslan Cohen Mizrahi   Ph.D. candidate, Hebrew Bible

Judith Guy                   MDiv student

Claire Hautot               Ph.D. student, Religions in America

Matthew Peterson        Ph.D. student, Philosophy of Religions

Caroline Anglim           Ph.D. student, Religious Ethics

Miriam Attia                  Ph.D. student, Religious Ethics

Miriam Bilsker              Ph.D. student, History of Judaism

Chelsea Cornelius       MDiv student

Timothy Gutmann         Ph.D. candidate, Islamic studies

Erin      Simmonds        A.M. student

Juliana Locke              A.M. student

Samuel Stella             A.M. student

A. Tonks Lynch           MDiv student

Myung-Sahm Suh      Ph.D. candidate, Anthropology & Sociology of Religion

Seth Auster-Rosen     Ph.D. student, Philosophy of Religions

Keri  Anderson           MDiv student

Sara Lytle                 MDiv student

Sarah Lusche           MDiv student

Anonymous              Ph.D. candidate, History of Judaism

RL Watson               Ph.D. candidate, Religion and Literature

Hannah Roh             Ph.D. candidate, Philosophy of Religions

Annemarie Kalson     MDiv student

Rachel Carbonara      Ph.D. student, Anthropology and Sociology of Religion

Andrew Kunze            Ph.D. student, Anthropology of Religion

Vinicius Marinho         Ph.D. student, Theology

Russell Johnson         Ph.D. candidate, Philosophy of Religions

Virginia  White            MDiv student

Gail Goldsmith            MDiv

Diego Suarez Rojas     A.M. student

W Ezekiel Goggin        Ph.D. candidate, Philosophy of Religions

Christina Llanes           Ph.D. candidate, History of Christianity

Karl Schmid                 A.M. ’14

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