For lent this year, I am giving silence.
I recently verbalized something to friends that had been in my head for a long time; in being silent, I thought I was following etiquette, I was worried about whether sharing my experiences would boil down to gossip. I thought I was acting within some framework of professional decorum. I figured I was playing the game and that, eventually, things would change and my patience would pay off. Others thought this same way, people I trusted, people who had ‘made it.’
I was wrong.
Things don’t change when people are silent; silence secures the status quo. Neutrality is not a moral value, it isn’t even a privilege; neutrality is an illusion. It’s no coincidence that it derives from neuter (think: Bob Barker)… Neutrality is a carefully crafted illusion, it requires the status quo editing out contrasting voices and complicating factors, like human beings. I know because I’ve been
dehumanized editorialized in the past
Featured image for a July 2013 article highlighting a 451% increase in student veterans at Duke University.
On June 17, 2013, a rep from the Duke News & Communication Office emailed me seeking an interview and connections to other veterans for research into “a story about the growth in the number of veterans on campus, in part the result of VA funding.” As a result of numerous instances of bias and harassment I knew had been occurring, I advised the writer “if this is for literature meant to attract more students, I may not be the best person to speak with.” The author described the project as follows;
The article I plan to write essentially highlights the fact that the number of veterans at Duke has risen lately, in large part due to VA programs now available. I want to talk with vets about the opportunity the VA has given them, how they plan to use their Duke degree and, yes, what their experience was like at Duke.
The “VA Programs” to which they referred are the “Post 9/11 GI Bill” and a subordinate program called “The Yellow Ribbon Program” (YRP) passed into law in 2008. During the 2012-2013 academic year, I learned that the implementation of the YRP was not uniform across Duke. In the case of the Divinity School, for example, only five YRP slots were allocated that year. A direct byproduct of this was to create silent competition between veteran applicants when enrollments exceeded available slots in any given year.
The first draft of the article went to the me and the two other veterans he interviewed on July 1, 2013. The draft offered disproportionate attention to non veterans over veterans, which is ironic because veterans were supposed to be the subject matter of the article. He talked to four administrators (the provost at the time, the Vice President for Student Affairs, an associate dean of students, and a registrar), but only three veterans.
The unbalanced devotion given to non veterans extended to the length and quality of quotations the author pulled from interviews. In the first draft shared with the student veterans involved, the article dedicated 129 words to the registrar, 38 words to the provost, and 18 to the associate dean. Though it never quotes the Student Affairs VP directly, the draft attributed 68 words to him in paraphrase. In contrast, the article only dedicated 20 words to one veteran, 15 words to me, and 13 words to the veteran whose likeness appears with the article.
Mid-article, as the out-going president of Duke Veterans, I was quoted as saying “Duke is not doing anything wrong, but there are more things they can be doing,” including establishing a veteran center on campus, which every other college in the triangle had except for Duke. After me, he cited the VP describing several measures Student Affairs was taking to address, as well as the VP’s “doubt” about the creation of a vet center. The author concluded his article by quoting a vet saying ““I have zero regrets… It was a pretty cool experience.”
The narrative arch created by the article seemed to me to significantly undermine my concerns as well as the credentials I brought with two years of leadership at Duke and my experience as a student veteran. The ordering of the quotations was objectionable, the editorial choices reflected a positive bias in favor of Duke which, I told the author, “requires much of the story about why I said what I did to be left unsaid.” So I asked for my name to be removed from the article before publication, which it was.
Another veteran reflected on the draft saying
No suicide rates, PTSD stats, nothing real… I’m not getting used for a back pat from a dude that didnt have enough integrity to do background research. I just emailed him and told him to take me out.
Editorializing the experience of veterans is does not serve their interests, nor does it promote diversity and inclusion and the long term health of the institution. What it does is silence and stratify a population protected by federal regulations as well as university policy. Such exclusionary and selective editorializing “interferes with or limits one’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or privileges” extended to other alumni, employees, or local stake holders; the definition of the EEOC “hostile environment” standard.
Rather than attracting veterans or enriching the student body by promoting a diversity of voices and experiences, back-patting articles like this downplay and deny the “real” difficulties faced by many veterans at Duke. Marginalizing the experiences of those veterans who do not fit the mold serves to enforce a standard of behavior, appearance, and expression that not all veterans can meet. As the “fastest growing student group,” it is imperative upon Duke to represent a wider array of student concerns, not to propagate articles that reinforce its own false self-perception or ideal brand.