Message from the Dean: Belonging and Betrayal

July 17, 2017

By Stephen Esquith, Dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.

I’d like to take a few moments between last spring’s graduation and the beginning of the next fall semester to reflect on the idea of belonging.

We know that RCAH is a welcoming place. Our students, graduates, parents, and community partners tell us how easy it has been to get to know the college and how much they appreciate being known by the faculty and staff. We do a very good job reaching out to newcomers and welcoming them into the RCAH community.

This is a necessary first step in building a diverse community. In RCAH we work very hard to help students feel like they belong through the arts and civic engagement curriculum we teach, through co-curricular programs like RCAH Dialogues, and through more relaxed activities like the Wednesday Night Live series and “Dine with Faculty.” Nonetheless, some students who have felt welcomed still may not feel like they fully belong. Their experiences and their ways of knowing – in other words, their stories – may not always be recognized in a way that allows them to feel like they too are part of RCAH.

I want to reflect on the idea of belonging through a distinction that the philosopher and political activist Avishai Margalit has introduced in his recent books, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (2010) and On Betrayal (2017). This will take us away from RCAH for a moment but I think the trip is worth it.

In the first book Margalit distinguishes between morality and ethics, two words that we often use as synonyms. But for Margalit, they are very different. Morality, he argues, refers to the relationships that we have to others as humans with a certain set of universal rights and a certain kind of dignity. When we deny others their humanity by treating them cruelly and humiliating them, we act immorally. Turning a blind eye to a stranger in dire need – the ultimate sign of unwelcome – can be both cruel and humiliating.

Ethics, on the other hand, refers to thicker social relationships. These are the relationships we have with family members and friends, and this is the focus of Margalit’s second book, Betrayal. Our ethical responsibilities to family members and friends, and their reciprocal responsibilities to us, go beyond refraining from cruelty and humiliation.  Margalit argues that we owe family and friends more than we owe strangers. We and our families and friends belong to a community with more positive responsibilities to one another, not just the responsibility not to act cruelly or to humiliate, as important as that is. When we do fail those who belong to our family, for example through abandonment or adultery, Margalit says we call it betrayal. Betrayal is so painful precisely because it destroys the feeling of belonging.

The RCAH community is held together by more than a thin web of moral rights and duties, even if it is not truly a family or a tight circle of friends, I believe we’ve created an ethical community to which we (ought to) feel we do belong. If we say that members of our ethical community ought to feel like they belong, not just feel welcomed at the door, how should we describe those cases where someone doesn’t feel like she or he belongs? Have they been welcomed into this thicker ethical community and then betrayed?

In RCAH we are still working on what it means to help students feel like they belong. Honoring their stories so that we can learn from one another is a central part of the ethos of a residential college like ours. As we finish our 10th year, it is a good time to reflect on how our curriculum and the many other activities that we have created can tell these stories even more clearly and powerfully so that all who are welcomed have good reasons to feel that they also belong. RCAH is not literally a family or even a close-knit group of friends. But it aspires to be an ethical community where belonging matters. It is a promise well worth keeping.