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story | Daryl Yang, Guest Contributor
photo | Rachel Juay
If there is something that distinguishes Yale-NUS from any other college in the world, it must be the diversity of our students. Yet, as much as we pride ourselves for this, the inclusiveness of our community does not seem to extend fully to students of faith and others with less-than-liberal beliefs. I know of several Christian friends who feel uncomfortable or intimidated about sharing their beliefs and an alumnus even noted in her capstone presentation how it seems easier to be gay than religious in a community like ours. Perhaps, the inclusiveness of our community is measured largely by such conventionally “liberal” standards, which then necessarily excludes those who do not consider themselves “liberals”.
This tension has always existed, bubbling just beneath the surface of our community’s collective consciousness. In 2015, controversy erupted over the delivery of a Scientific Inquiry lecture on evolution when the professor “thumbed through a bible and juxtaposed photos of parasite infections to excerpts from a Christian hymn”. Similarly, earlier this semester, someone scribbled “a more considerate Christian Fellowship” on a lift poster put up by The G Spot for student suggestions on how the LGBTQ community can be better supported, almost as if accusing the Christian Fellowship of not doing enough or even adversely affecting their LGBTQ peers.
As our college enters its fifth year, it may be worth considering how we can mature from inclusiveness to pluralism. How can we build a community where no one feels unwelcome or discouraged from sharing their beliefs and views, and disagreements and differences are accepted and celebrated as an essential facet of our community?
Since I first matriculated in 2014, there has existed an understandable but unfounded perception that The G Spot and the Christian Fellowship were at odds with each other. While it is undeniable that many in both groups have significant differences, this perception is likely influenced by ongoing social discourse from outside our college and does not reflect the amicable relationships between both groups and their leaders. Yet, it continues to persist and has made conversations on these issues more difficult and consequently, rare. More troublingly, this pink elephant in the room – that those who sincerely believe that homosexuality is a sin are seen either as “bigoted”, “hateful” or just “ignorant” because of their religious convictions – can cause some students of faith to feel less welcome or alienated in our community because of their beliefs or faith.
When I was coming out during orientation, I remember coming out to everyone in my orientation group except the one person who wore a cross around her neck. I assumed that since she was Christian, it meant that she would not be accepting if I did come out to her. It was not until that she decided to come out as an ally to me first and prove me very wrong about her views on LGBTQ people that I realized that I had fallen victim to the same trap of stereotypes that I work so hard to overcome about gay people myself.
A key part of our liberal arts education has been about challenging assumptions and it is crucial for us to move beyond these simplistic binary preconceptions as a first step to fostering a truly inclusive community. I have found from this and other experiences that the most powerful yet simple way to challenge and overcome such binary thinking is to have conversations with those we perceive to be “the other”. In so doing, we are confronted with their complex fullness as human beings that often immediately dispel any stereotype or prejudged conclusion we might have about them.
Over the past few years, I have had many such difficult but important conversations with friends with whom I passionately disagree with. Not only do these conversations help us understand each other’s contrasting perspectives better in more nuanced ways, they also help us find common ground on from which we can to build relationships and empathy with each other. For instance, when I was Coordinator of The G Spot, members of the Christian Fellowship wrote a statement in support of our call for dialogue and engagement during the Ambassador Chan controversy. While it is easy to find what we disagree with each other on, it is also equally, if not more, important for us to find underlying values that we can agree on.
If we are to build a community that is not merely diverse or inclusive, but plural, it is time for us to confront this pink elephant in the room. It is time for us to end the uncomfortable silence around what is perhaps the most divisive matter in our community. In my past three years in this college, I have found that the greatest opportunities for growth come precisely at times when we feel uncomfortable, awkward or nervous. While we may end up continuing to disagree with each other, I believe it is not so much the outcome as it is the process of engagement that is central to the spirit of a liberal arts education.
In answering the question of how we can build a more inclusive community where no one feels unwelcome or discouraged from sharing their beliefs and views, I believe there are two essential components that we must continue to work on: a culture of vulnerability and a culture of courage.
Something that Professor Anju Paul said in her 2016 First Year Assembly speech about what sets Yale-NUS apart resonates strongly with me: “In our difference and diversity, we find freedom and richness. In our intimacy, we find the opportunity to learn from one another.” Over the past several years, I have found that it is precisely this intimacy that undergirds our college’s ethos and distinguishes us as not just an institution but a community of learning. Yet, this intimacy is also a fragile product of vulnerability, trust and respect that we must continually foster and encourage. How much we will grow in this community ultimately depends on how much each of us isare willing to be vulnerable with our peers. This also means being comfortable with discomfort, disagreement and differences.
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once observed that the great divide in the world today is “between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.” It is far too often easier for us to shut out different and disagreeable opinions or views than to listen and engage with them. Yet, it is critical that we not only have the courage to listen to such views but also the courage to give voice to what we believe in and stand for even if they may be different or disagreeable. Keeping mum for fear of causing offence or disagreement is antithetical to a liberal arts education, for we can learn only by actively engaging and discussing with one another in the Socratic tradition.
In an increasingly polarized world, our college offers a safe microcosm to grapple with the difficult tensions of living in a diverse community. Ultimately, this pink elephant among us should not be regarded merely as a problem to be resolved; rather, it is an opportunity for us to learn and grow together in building a plural community in Singapore. As a liberal arts college, it is trite that learning takes place beyond the confines of our classrooms and I hope that this piece will spur and contribute to more conversations in our community from which we can learn and grow individually and collectively as a college.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org