A Comment on Assembly Etiquette

The annual Ben Cooper Lecture sparked controversy when the Student Staff Council (SSC) Minutes email on November 26 criticized GDS’s assembly etiquette.  

After the lecture, Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, answered a series of questions from four male students. That prompted Ambassador Power to ask, “Where are the ladies?” 

The event set off a broader debate at GDS about who feels privileged to speak in both classrooms and assemblies. However, the SSC email, which captured the discussion at its recent meeting, missed the most important point. Our goal should not be to single out a group of students for speaking up, but rather to create an environment where everyone feels their views are respected and is empowered to express their opinions.

There is a great deal the SSC discussion gets right. The SSC is correct that Ambassador Power knows more about U.S. foreign policy than GDS students. In general, students should be aware that there are times when clapping after someone asks a question can be disrespectful to the guest speaker. Moreover, as the SSC Minutes point out, “students should refrain from asking questions in an attacking way or sounding as if they are trying to catch the speaker in a lie.” Suggesting that we should enforce a regulation of students’ questions is both unproductive and inappropriate. While students should be free to have their own point of view and to disagree with speakers, we need to do so respectfully. Overall, we want to ensure that guest speakers leave GDS with the understanding that we are open to diverse views and learning from people outside our community. 

The SSC went further in its email, pointing out that problems with assembly etiquette have happened before and making a broader claim about the environment here at GDS. The minutes wrote, “This is often boys explaining subjects they don’t know a lot about to very accomplished women, who are here specifically to talk about these subjects. Many men who do this don’t even see it, or don’t think it is disrespectful, but rather see it as showing off their expertise.” More broadly, SSC states, “This isn’t only in assemblies, but also in classrooms and in everyday life… Predominantly white men speak, but also they are the ones who raise their hands.” 

Certainly, there are deep and enduring inequalities in power and privileges in our society and culture. GDS is a part of this unequal society and culture, and therefore the same inequities that are apparent around us are also present in our community. GDS works hard to address its unequal culture, but undeniably there is more that can be done. 

Nevertheless, the SSC missed an opportunity in its discussion about assembly etiquette. The debate about this assembly is a chance to reinforce fundamental GDS values that are the hallmark of our community — inclusion, diversity of thought, and the rigorous testing of ideas. It is true that no one person or group of people should dominate the conversation, as Ambassador Power recognized. But the goal should be that everyone be empowered to speak and that all views are welcome and respected. We should all strive to express our views with humility and with an openness to different perspectives. These are the conditions, whether in an assembly or in a classroom, that are necessary for our school to promote freedom of speech and encourage dissent.

In its meeting, the SSC discussed taking action on the issue of male students dominating the assembly conversations:  “Personally and as student leaders, it is our responsibility to use these observations and create change.” The change should focus on unifying our student community, not dividing it. We must not isolating any group for speaking, but create the conditions where we encourage everyone to speak and welcome diverse viewpoints with respect.

Will Olsen ’21