Personal Narrative: “How ‘Open Dialogue’ Closes the Conversation”

The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives. Today’s is authored by Michael “Trixie” Kengmana ’14. If you have a personal narrative you’d like to share with the Kenyon community, please submit to

You can find it in mission statements of schools throughout the country. You can find it in just about every letter of apology sent by school administrations over incidents of intolerance. It’s a mantra that our generation has heard throughout our lives and has worn out its significance. The idea of “Open Dialogue” is ideally to have all sides be on an equal playing field and have everybody able to voice their opinion. This all sounds great in theory. On April 22, 2014, I was able to once again see how none of this works out in practice when I attended the forum to discuss Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine’s (KSJP) wall installation in Peirce. (KSJP’s statement on the installation can be seen here here),

I went into the forum with a bit more hope than I normally do. The night before I spent hours looking through a book my friend showed me, Before Their Diaspora. It is a book of photographs of Palestinians from the years 1876-1948 (Palestinians have a history before 1948? Weird, right?) I spent all night looking through these incredible photos, feeling like I was teleported back in time. There were pictures of Palestinians in the marketplace, families, neighborhoods, there was one of a mother giving her child a bath, children in a kindergarten class, girls dancing in their school’s gymnasium, Christian weddings, Muslim weddings, Jewish weddings, Muslims praying, Jews praying, and the list goes on and on. One photo in particular struck me because of a comment left on it by another viewer two years ago (I looked at the book online). The photo was of a bustling street, and in the lower right corner there was a sign with the words “Boulos Meo.” The comment read as follows:

Notice the Boulos Meo sign at the lower right corner of the photo. He was my great grand father who started the shop in 1872. The shop lasted at the Jaffa Gate for 5 generations till sold in 1997. I have the original photo (amongst others) done by the Swiss photographer Bonfils. Still have the accounting books, Ottoman travel documents, business cards, flower cards and so on.
Rami Meo –

I still have chills when I think about that photo and the comment. The book brought to life a people and a history that have been largely neglected and forgotten. It provided a glimpse into the lives of Palestinians, past the wars and past the politics. I got a small taste of what a normal day was like for Palestinians in these years; how they went about their lives and what connections they made to the places and the people around them. This is why the book was so powerful.

I bring this up because KSJP’s wall in Peirce had this same beautiful power, though at the forum I realized that this has unfortunately been lost on many here at Kenyon, and this is no fault of KSJP. The wall provided a small glimpse into what the daily lives of Palestinians today are like, past the violence and past the politics. The wall wasn’t about Hamas, it wasn’t about the “peace talks,” and it wasn’t about American foreign policy. It was about trying to portray the lives of people that are for the most part neglected and forgotten in the midst of all the “debate” over Israel and Palestine.

But the lives of Palestinians today do not paint a pretty picture for us to look at. They wake up every day deprived of basic human rights, and every day they have to look at a wall that tells them that they do not matter; that their homes that were taken from them, their histories, and their connections to the people and places they love all mean nothing. The wall tells them that they as people, like their histories, will be forgotten. The wall in Peirce illuminated this reality for people here at Kenyon who would typically never think about this.

I was hopeful going into the forum because I believed that this would be brought up for the community to discuss. What I witnessed was an hour and fifteen minutes of people talking about how they were offended and what they believed “productive open dialogue” was. I can only remember Palestinians being mentioned two or three times throughout the entire forum. It quickly became a debate over how best to go about dialogue and how not to offend people. In a word: bullshit.

The common accusation against KSJP was that they did not portray both sides of the story. Well, the whole point of the wall was to portray a side of the story that is almost never seen, meaning that both sides of the story are never actually given. How come there is never uproar from the Kenyon community whenever the problems facing Palestinians are not brought to light? How come it is only when a minority viewpoint is brought to light that the calls for “open dialogue” start coming out, and we decide to make sure everyone feels “safe” and that everyone’s voice is heard? Never mind the fact that everyday minorities are afraid to actually voice their opinions because of the backlash they would receive (as seen with the wall installation) and know that many will not listen to them if they do. What this points to is a power dynamic that is at play, masked by calls for “open dialogue.”

The idea behind “open dialogue” is that everyone in the discussion is on equal footing and should have a chance to have their voice heard. This sounds great, only that this does not exist. Our society is built upon racial, ethnic, and gender hierarchies (there are more) that empower certain groups over others. These power structures have become ingrained into our collective psyche, and now operate subconsciously for the majority of people. Simply saying that we will treat everyone equally in a discussion does not make it so. When we engage in “open dialogue,” this unequal power dynamic does not disappear; rather, it is simply masked by abstract ideals of equality.

This manifests itself in common accusations such as “you need to give both sides of the story,” and “you need to be more aware of how this can offend people.” Why is it the job of minorities (leaving aside for the moment that there are more than just two opposite “sides” on this issue) to give both sides of the story when the majority never does? Why do minorities have to make sure everyone feels “safe” and “comfortable” whenever they bring an issue to light when every day the majority lives in a way that is at best disrespectful to minorities?

I understand that people were offended by the wall in Peirce. But maybe, just maybe, they — as human beings capable of thinking critically about the world and themselves — should have taken time to reflect. Maybe the wall — made by fellow Kenyon students — wasn’t trying to attack people on this campus. Maybe it was trying to offer a perspective that is typically ignored. Maybe the fact that some people saw the wall as a polarizing and offensive way to portray a “side” of a “debate” says more about how they have been conditioned to think about these sorts of issues rather than what the wall itself conveyed. Maybe the reason why many people saw the wall as simply a political statement is because when most Americans think of the Middle East, we only think of it in terms of politics and violence. Maybe, the discomfort and offense people felt as a result of the wall for one week is a small glimpse into the pain that Palestinians feel on a daily basis. Maybe instead of accusing KSJP of not giving both sides of the story, we should applaud them for giving us an opportunity to add an important perspective to the lacking narrative we currently employ.

I am not saying people do not have a right to be offended, but we all should always think critically about why we feel a certain way before we cement ourselves in victimization. I recognize this takes significant discomfort and pain, but there is no real way around this. To echo KSJP, what can be promised is that if we are willing to engage in this manner, then we can work through this together and begin to bridge together our disconnected realities.

But the calls for “open dialogue” at the forum led the dialogue to simply be a discussion about what dialogue is and how to properly promote dialogue (notice how I am using the word “dialogue” a lot. Does this piss you off? Me too), and completely undermined the efforts of KSJP to try to convey a perspective that is typically overlooked and ignored. The forum became a catalog of grievances and instructions aimed at a minority group for how to better conduct themselves if they want to speak out. The majority once again became the authority on how people should act, meaning the majority once again controlled the discussion.

We need to start recognizing that there are power structures in place that we all take part in reproducing on a daily basis, causing some groups to be disadvantaged and others to be privileged.These dynamics play out in “open dialogue,” but we often disregard them, and convince ourselves that the discussion is equalized.We make both the majority and the minority play by the same rules, and by doing so, we cement these privileges and disadvantages in the discussion, and silence the minority. This manifested itself in the hour and fifteen minute long forum for an art installation that conveyed the human perspective of Palestinians in their everyday life where almost no one mentioned Palestinians. I am not saying that anyone purposefully tried to undermine the efforts of KSJP by voicing their opinions and emotions about the wall. I am saying that too many people engaged in “dialogue” through a script based on victimization and abstract debate over “dialogue” and “progress.” This sort of engagement enabled people to subconsciously neglect and obscure the actual issues brought to light by the wall and avoid the discomfort necessary for growth.

I will end this piece with a quote from a poem written and performed by Kenyon’s own Sarah Gold and Andrew Pochter that for me was at the heart of what the wall installation conveyed. “Hatred and intolerance are learned. And if they can be learned, they can be unlearned. So, we are here to unlearn them, and to work towards a future where others do not have to learn them; a future where we can switch to empathy and compassion.” Many will read this quote and say that the wall had no compassion and empathy at all, as evidenced by the people on this campus who were hurt by it. To this I say, real empathy requires discomfort and even pain. It is discomforting to step outside our own lives and into another’s, and it is painful to see the world and ourselves through another’s eyes and feel the pain they feel. But this is the only way we can truly come to a mutual understanding and acceptance of each other as human beings. Did the wall convey every story that needs to be told to create this understanding? No, of course not. There are too many stories to tell for any single act or moment to convey. But the wall provided a glimpse into a story untold and too often forgotten. From here we can add on more stories and continue unlearning the intolerance we currently share. More than anything else, the wall installation cultivated seeds of empathy and compassion for a group of people on this earth who typically receive none.

14 responses

  1. This is an extraordinary piece of writing that makes me proud to be a teacher at an institution where students can convey such important insights in such an eloquent and humane manner. I salute the author and “The Thrill.”

    I was particularly moved by the following line:

    “Why do minorities have to make sure everyone feels “safe” and “comfortable” whenever they bring an issue to light when every day the majority lives in a way that is at best disrespectful to minorities?”

    There were indeed voices at the forum that attempted to paint the ideas raised by “the Wall” as unacceptable to civilized discourse and beyond the pale of the liberal arts. One faculty member at the forum went so far as to argue that the students who built “the Wall” constituted “an existential threat” and thus might no longer be welcome in his classes.
    Mr. Kengmana has it absolutely right. It is not surprising that at Kenyon College “minorities are afraid to actually voice their opinions because of the backlash they would receive (as seen with the wall installation) and know that many will not listen to them if they do.”

    As Kenyon College continues to become more diverse my hope is that it learns to tolerate–even appreciate–the new ideas and perspectives that diversity brings. It is voices like Mr. Kengmana’s that represent the future of our institution as it transforms into a community that fully embraces the challenges and opportunities of diversity in a positive and constructive way.

  2. The line Professor Schubel highlists is what I found most troubling in this piece. It, to me, implies that the “majority” should be held to a higher standard in making people comforable than the “minority”. I fail to see how this is not guised elitism, where the “haves” are held to a higher standard than the “have-nots”. Equality dicates the sames rules of etiquette, discourse, etc. should hold for everyone. No matter if one’s parents are affulent and white or non-white and poor, everyone should be beholden to the same standards.

    If Kenyon is to progress and continue its evolution into a diverse place, it must become a less-sensitive place, not more. As more points of view are shared, there will be contention as well as agreement. If students take intellectual shortcuts, such as ingoring or agreeing with someone because of their privelege or lack of privelege, then the proliferation of ideas (the highest benefit of diversity from the perspetive of the Liberal Arts) will not occur. We cannot be so sensitive that provocative suggestions, such as that Israel is illegitimate or that that abortion is morally wrong, drive us into anger. Anger clouds reason in a shroud of self-justification and makes “open dialogue” impossible. At Kenyon, there is too much quarelling instead of respectful disagreement.

    Without a firm commitment to taking each community member seriously, regardless of their race, religion, sex or privelege, Kenyon’s enterprise as a liberal arts college will fail. Simply pointing out someone’s background/social status in an attempt to exclude them is unacceptable. When a black woman is ignored or treated differently for being black woman, that is wrong. When a white man is ignored or treated differently for being a white man, that is wrong. When a transgender asian is treated differently for being a trans asian, that is wrong.

    Attributing Kenyon’s shortcomings to “power structures” and ineffetual “abstract sense of equality” that this piece argues against is an easy out. This point of view, right or wrong, often provides a sheen of intellectual self-assuredness. What does blaming the “system” accomplish at a place like Kenyon, an isolated pocket of intellectuals in rural Ohio? Since when did concepts of privilege and gender become necessary for having any conentious discussion? During our four years at Kenyon, the most important thing we learn is to judge one idea against another based on reason. Using a framework where someone’s gender, race or privelege supercedes the validity of their point is ignorant and flawed.

    • Overlooking, for the most part, the fact that you did not proofread that comment even once — the majority *should* be held to a higher standard. That is, in fact, codified in the operation of our nation constitutionally. The way you use the term “equality” suggests that you believe that every opinion is weighted equally. It would be remarkable if that were to become a reality in our lifetime, or even the lifetime of our children or grandchildren. The reason that the majority is held to a higher standard is precisely born out of that power imbalance, and the fact that you misunderstand that grounds your line of reasoning on a false premise. It is on that premise that you, not Trixie, take an intellectual shortcut. In fact, you take the intellectual shortcut that this article brilliantly condemns. Sensitivity does not lead us to the sharper divisions that you suggest. Quite the opposite — a lack of sensitivity does nothing but permit those divisions to age and to become sharper. A lack of sensitivity makes those divisions and their consequences acceptable.

      You argue that sensitivity drives us into anger and makes “open dialogue” impossible. I question if you read the article. “Open dialogue” is the intellectual shortcut — your argument has been scripted for decades (aged, sharpened and rendered acceptable). This isn’t a question of ignoring people who find themselves in a position of privilege. The fact that you think so speaks to your overall misunderstanding of the idea that when a minority challenges the position of the majority — when the former disagrees — it is only then that we are called to participate in an “open dialogue.” When the minority acts in accordance with the majority, it is rendered “the highest benefit of diversity from the perspetive(?) of the Liberal Arts.”

      “Open dialogue” is a vacuous notion used to silence a dissenting minority. It does not exist.

      You claim that addressing “power structures” and the “abstract sense of equality” is an “easy out.” But your failure to understand the consequences of these power structures contributes to your failure to acknowledge that your entire argument is based on that “abstract sense of equality.” It is an “easy out,” you say, and that is perhaps the only part of your argument with which I actively agree. It is the mechanism that you employ from the beginning. You say that it “provides a sheen of intellectual self-assuredness,” and that is precisely what you have demonstrated. You ask what blaming the “system” can accomplish, but that, too, is a reduction and dismissal of an argument that, according to your philosophy, should be met with respect and reason. You suggest that the framework that has been used — and which you have both misunderstood, and dismissed with a demonstrable lack of effort — is ignorant and flawed because it rejects an opinion not because it is invalid, but because a person’s identity has influenced its reception. You have employed that approach.

      Your comment, more than anything, has underscored the reason why this article has become so influential for the discourse on this campus in such a short time. You encourage discourse when you agree with its content, and you discard it when you feel threatened by it. You call for the respect and equality of all voices, and then, when you disagree, dismiss the idea of equality as an abstraction.

      And then you call for “open dialogue.”

  3. The Thrill is for students I thought. Professor Schubel doesn’t think so. He uses it to attack Zionist students and faculty. Okay then, here goes. 1) He misrepresents me and others when he contends that the issue is about a minority expressing itself. The issue was whether anyone, majority or minority, doing so by theatrical means which simplify, demonize and arouse indignation is a good way to do it. It isn’t as he surely knows, unless all one wants is a nice bloody fight. 2) He likes to have it both ways. In the Thrill the anti-Zionists are an embattled minority; in the Collegian it was the Zionists who were a “small, vocal minority” that should be ignored. Whatever works rhetorically, I guess. 3) Neither who was offended nor who is in the majority is in the least relevant. Whether, as Professor Schubel has now admitted he desires, the Jewish state should be destroyed and replaced with yet another Arab one is the issue. It has always been the true and only issue. Let’s have an honest, rational debate about that and let’s stop pretending it’s about who gets to feel hurt or any of the other side issues. All of them resolve into the question of why the Arabs always refuse a peace which allows a Jewish state to exist.

  4. While it’s commendable how articulately you write about the need for more constructive dialogue, what KSJP has been far less candid about is to what the wall actually represents to those knowledgeable about the conflict.

    As Professor Schubel very astutely pointed out in ehe Collegian, the wall, at its crux, represents the idealism of a one state solution; this means, not only the destruction of the national aspirations of Israelis, but also the national aspirations of Palestinians as well.

    The majority of Palestinians and Israelis today desire self-determination in their own separate countries. While KSJP may say that the wall represents the human rights Palestinians are routinely denied, what KSJP fails to realize is that the right to self-determination is a basic human right.

    • Actually, from what I’ve gathered, KSJP did and does realize this, but felt that continuing to speak about international law and the rights guaranteed by it (as any who make the effort to attend their meeting would know they do) wasn’t moving people. As such, part of the effect of the wall was to appeal to the emotional sides of students since the logical side didn’t seem to willing to budge.

  5. To Dr. Phil:

    There’s nothing much left to say. Professor Baumann really ripped Professor Schubel a new one.

    What’s so sad is that Professor Schubel’s outspoken intimidation towards Zionists at this school, as the head of the religious studies department, will likely have the effect of deterring many potentially very qualified students and professors from joining the Kenyon community, not to mention repelling alumni who may still have a great deal to contribute to this school.

    Given the intellect it must have taken for Professor Schubel to get to his current position, I fear that Professor Schubel is fully aware of the consequences of his actions, and thus empathize a great deal with Professor Baumann.

    • Just because you empathize with Professor Baumann and join in on this public back-and-forth doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t look each other in the eye when they insult each other. You’re not my brother.

      • Professor Baumann’s comment’s were brazen but honest, while Professor Schubel abused his influence and intelligence to make passive aggressive remarks against Professor Baumann instead of just lauding Michael’s article.

        Perhaps there should be a cooling off period before a face to face is likely to occur.

        I think Professor Schubel should probably have taken a page from one of the numerous religions he’s studied and initiated dialogue by showing Professor Baumann some compassion.

        Just because we disagree, doesn’t mean we’re not brothers. Just because Palestinians and Israelis argue about a great deal number of things, doesn’t mean that they don’t share a vibrant and historic connection to the same piece of land.

        In that way, I believe Palestinians and Israelis are brothers and sisters.

  6. Pingback: The Shape of Our Table and The Wall in Peirce | The Thrill

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