You know how when you say a word so many times it starts to lose its meaning? Well apparently that’s called semantic satiation. That fact has nothing to do with this column, but psychology really does have terminology for everything.

Anyway, I’ve been living in Ann Arbor for close to four years now, and the oft-repeated word I’m thinking about is “dialogue.”

“We need to have a dialogue,” they said when the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement was dominating the campus conversation during spring 2014 and 2015.

“We need to have a dialogue,” they said about mental health on campus.

“We need to have a dialogue,” they said about sexual assault on campus.

“We need to have a dialogue,” they said about diversity on campus.

And most recently, “We need to have a dialogue,” they said in response to the Islamophobic chalkings on the Diag.

Dialogue is “an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.”

Reaching an agreement or an “agree to disagree” situation on whatever topic is the ideal result and generally leaves people on both sides of an issue satisfied, or at least content. This probably explains why calls for dialogue have become the most predictable response to anything remotely controversial on campus.

But when you really think about it, what does dialogue really mean in the context it gets used in on campus? After four years of working at the Daily, I’ve concluded it means so much and so little at the same time. In some cases, establishing places to have a dialogue — real, honest conversation — has allowed students to safely discuss the issues that matter to them and seems to ensure that people are actually listening.

Take the topic of sexual assault, for example. The University of Michigan hosted several roundtable discussions about the sexual misconduct policy this past fall, which resulted in a much more comprehensive policy. It felt like people’s views were heard. This, in addition to the Speak Outs that the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center has hosted, shows how far campus has come in trying to make a difference on this issue.

Since I came to campus in 2012, mental health has also become a much less taboo topic thanks to dialogue. The Daily has published countless articles about mental health and the need for more resources on campus. There have been all kinds of events about it on campus, too. And perhaps as a result of these efforts, though it’s far from perfect, Counseling and Psychological Services has worked to improve its intake time. And University President Mark Schlissel recently said the University is working on plans to establish a new mental health clinic on campus. That’s a big deal, and it’s happening because students are coming out and saying, “Enough is enough. We need better.”

In other instances, calls for dialogue have been little more than empty words. Though the word was tossed around, the debate over whether Central Student Government should have passed a resolution to divest from companies engaged in business in Israel was objectively anything but dialogue. There were two sides entrenched in their beliefs. One side said their piece, the other said theirs, and there was no attempt to really listen to one another.

And just a couple of weeks ago, after the anti-Islam chalking incident, Schlissel said this as part of a longer statement: “I am convinced that we have the ability to come together to engage in meaningful dialogue on difficult topics that is enabled by our deep commitment to respect for all.”

“We stand together against hate. We must work together toward deeper understanding.” Of course, I agree with the sentiment. The University is a bastion of intelligent human beings. But what exactly does he mean by meaningful dialogue?

The same strategies that may have worked to develop a better sexual misconduct policy can’t be expected to work when talking about race and religion. We know we need to combat Islamophobia on campus. We know people of color are marginalized. But if it’s sitting around a table for an hour and talking about our experiences that he’s proposing with this statement, then I’m not convinced progress will be made. That won’t help us reach a deeper understanding of one another. 

Part of what makes the conversation about race and religion so different than others is that it takes a certain degree of courage to think past our preconceived beliefs. There’s a reason why we often gravitate toward people like ourselves — as much as we may claim otherwise, we don’t like our beliefs and potential biases being challenged.

Because of this difference, calls for dialogue about race and religion must be treated differently as well. If the University really wants to do something, then it has to do everything in its power to get people from all different walks of life — races, religions, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, etc. — living and working together.

The University needs to work on the smallest details, such as who lives with whom in the dorms. It needs to think about the homogeneity in Greek life and its implications. It needs to think about who studies where in each library and who lives where off campus. It needs to think about why “safe spaces” need to be created in the first place. It needs to keep finding ways to make coming to this school more affordable and make it appealing to people of all backgrounds. Only with an understanding of all these things — how students live their lives — can the University make an earnest effort to change the status quo.

Dialogue has the potential to mean something all the time. I am so convinced that students aren’t that different from one another, but we (me included) and the University don’t do enough to put ourselves in the position to recognize that. Hosting and attending events like “Muffins with Muslims,” which happened last Friday, is only the beginning of what has to happen to bring ourselves together in ways beyond short conversations and writing articles of solidarity.

So now this is the end of my final column, and I guess all I’m trying to say in this article and all the previous ones I’ve written is for some reason, I believe in the human spirit. I know we can see the humanity in each other.

We just have to try harder and turn our words into action.

Derek Wolfe can be reached at dewolfe@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *