Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Harmony and disharmony in cultural perspectives

At a time when cultural difference is being highlighted and the treatment and rights of minority cultural groups is the subject of significant discourse and protest, I find myself looking for any ray of hope and a path forward.

President Crutcher of the University of Richmond, shared insight from his discipline by suggesting that "To succeed, colleges and universities must recommit to helping students become active listeners with the inner strength to weather the challenging and even offensive views they will inevitably encounter in democratic life. My experience as a cellist in a chamber ensemble -- and often the only person of color in any room -- has taught me that if you actively listen, even when the chords are dissonant, the harmonies can resolve into a single, complex musical composition made better by its many parts."

President Crutcher's subsequent essay, Leadership in Crossing Divides, offered further reflections on having difficult conversations and specifically recounts experiences he had where the initial visceral reaction was to challenge or end a conversation. But he advocates leaning into conversations that may at first blush look racist or off-putting:

  • Lesson #1 - acknowledge uncomfortable history as a way of opening discourse on what to do now
  • Lesson #2 - respond to controversial speech with more speech
  • Lesson #3 - slow down

I assume that President Crutcher's argument is more complex than these two short essays reveal, but the focus on listening for those who have to endure "challenging and offensive views" is problematic. The responsibility for harmonizing or connecting, if that is the goal, rests with everyone in an ensemble or other type of organization. And I would even suggest that the greater responsibility rests in the mind and expectation of the dominant forces (in the music analogy, the sonorous or comfortable harmony). Music comes in many and varied forms and sometimes the most intense and engaging music has lots of discord, and there may actually never be a comfortable resolution to a harmony that is recognizable by all.

My insight tells me that, rather than seeking harmony, those of us committed to inclusive cultural perspectives need to welcome a new kind of tonality that, in fact, may be quite discordant. Indeed, discord entered the University of Richmond environment when President Crutcher, supported by members of the Board, determined to not rename campus buildings that celebrated founders who owned slaves but, instead, chose to include the names of both those who owned slaves and the enslaved. Following the decision, a coalition of Black students and other advocates at the University pledged that if the building names were not changed by March 25, they would stop participating in campus organizations and administrative groups. Deep sensitivity and division remained at University of Richmond with faculty first passing a resolution criticizing the University Rector and then voting "no confidence" in his ability to exercise his fiduciary responsibility on behalf of the University. The faculty actions began as a reaction to his reference to "Black, brown, and regular students" during deliberations. The Richmond Board of Trustees eventually placed the naming decision on hold and have formed a task group to study and make recommendations before proceeding.

My experience with and appreciation of music tells me that in the case of naming campus buildings and all cases of working toward cultural understandings that it's all about balance - can a dominant tonality embrace the wonderful and sometimes tense discomfort of a completely new sound? The University of Richmond story tipped toward greater dissonance and it remains to be seen if a comfortable tonality can be found after a period of sharp discord.

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