By Daniel Galperin (ChE ’18) and Pranav Joneja (ME ’18)
What follows is an editorial about the manner of discussion regarding the conversion of all restrooms to gender-neutral facilities. The discussion happens to be very similar to how many complicated and polarizing issues are discussed at Cooper Union. Please read it in the lens of the conversion of restrooms, but also in the foreground of the other important issues we face as a community. The authors believe there are bad community habits that require addressing. The authors also refer to themselves as “I, me” so as to reserve the use of “we, us” for the wider student body and “you” for… well you, dear reader. Each of the three sections speak to a different “you.”
Should all bathrooms be gender-neutral? It seems no one has known for the past three months. I, for one, don’t know. Judging from what I’m hearing in the hallways and reading on Facebook threads as of late, everyone has an opinion now! That is truly fantastic, but many of us are appreciably late to the party, aren’t we? When the idea of converting binary restrooms to gender neutral came up at the October Engineering Student Council meeting, representatives were supposed to be relaying the sentiments of their sections, but there was very little conversation… to put it lightly.
For some reason, it seems as though the majority of engineers, which is the majority of students at Cooper, just forgets to care about governance and social issues. On November 8, Joint Student Council passed a resolution calling for the conversion of all restrooms to gender-neutral restrooms. The outcry of reactionary opinions has been quite a raucous! In discussions I’ve had with other students, I’ve frequently heard the opinion that engineers’ representatives didn’t adequately voice the opinions of their constituencies. “Why?” you ask? People are pretty quick to say that our governance is to blame, but I challenge these people to attend ESC meetings and voice their concerns in any context that isn’t strictly reactionary. Apologies if that sounds brash, but it is difficult to accept a criticism of a system from a person who has never cared enough to see how it actually functions. And therein lies a big part of this week’s outcry.
“It’s not all our fault!” you say. “We have governance in place that is meant to represent us, but it failed to in this case.” To that, I say: you’re partly right. Governance is at fault—to some degree. I know for a fact that almost everyone actually cares, it’s just that some exam is coming up and there are three problem sets and an essay due. Many of the concerns raised now should have been represented at the JSC meeting—and for that, two things should have happened: first, students should have relayed their concerns to their reps, and second, ESC reps should have been more proactive in hearing the students’ opinions.
A few representatives held meetings with their sections (real life meetings!), so they were most aware of where students stand. That is actually an excellent idea, and I’m sincerely glad they made those efforts. But many of these representatives were not present at the JSC meeting where the voting happened. They didn’t follow through.
Even when a representative has two days’ notice of a meeting and is unable to attend, there is still something he or she can do. That is, send an alternate, someone who the rep nominates to attend a meeting and vote on their behalf and by extension, on behalf of their constituency. A representative can never allow the chance of totally failing to represent the people that elected them. Moreover, perhaps what is needed is a more sophisticated method of gauging student opinion, more sophisticated than “please respond to this email with your thoughts.”
Indeed, students are justified if they feel the process of governance did not work. However, just being mad about the process is not enough. It needs to be followed up with a solution that the community can agree on and the administration can enact. In an email to all engineers, ESC recognizes that the topic “may not have been discussed thoroughly enough” and calls for “all reps to re-engage in productive discussion with their sections.” Bill Mea and Chris Chamberlin are “planning to bring trained facilitators to educate the campus about the issues facing trans and gender non-conforming students so that we can all enter into discussions from an educated perspective.” These are all steps we need to take together: we need to develop the language around the issue, look within ourselves to understand where exactly our opinions come from, and most of all, listen to each other.
To reiterate, we should voice our concerns and show up to ESC meetings so that we can affect change proactively, instead of attempting to yell retroactively. ESC representatives need to make a greater effort to represent their sections and more importantly, need to show up to JSC meetings. If they can’t, they must send an alternate. For us to have a say in Cooper’s governance, we need to try harder.
This week, hundreds of online comments were filled with hateful language and presumptuous overtones. People said really vicious things. It got ugly.
The way discourse is going right now, people are forced to pick one of two sides over an issue that is actually much broader and deeper. Some don’t voice disagreement for fear of being perceived a certain way. Others feel compelled to take sides because that’s what seems to be the dominant perspective. In truth, these are signs of a polarized discussion that is no longer worthwhile.
I understand the urge to be witty and sharp in an argument, but this shouldn’t be about how fast you can respond because that is how conversations get derailed and all progress is lost. Everyone needs to be more mindful of how they address this issue and each other. When someone says something hostile or just straight up trolls, both groups immediately lose the ability to have meaningful discussion. They surrender the possibility of reaching a resolution or compromise that they claim to want so much.
Simply put: who is going to listen to you after you’ve just gone and said something that they interpret as completely misinformed and hostile? How can you even expect anything less in return? Sure, you may not have meant to be rude, or maybe you have some reason for why what you said isn’t offensive (i.e. it’s not logical to get offended by this OR you’re part of a socially dominant majority so you can’t be offended by this). Your comment is followed by their rebuttal is followed by your outrage is followed by hurling insults. By now, the discussion is so far removed from the real thing.
It’s too disheartening, however, for us to simply throw up our arms in frustration. I think we can all agree that Facebook is a toxic environment for group discussion. The mixture of the ability of a comment to get likes, the urge for rapid response and most importantly, the fact that you’re not actually speaking to another human being in person, are all factors that make for a very antagonistic and unsympathetic atmosphere.
We need to foster person-to-person discussion of
bathroom issues. In a broader sense, we need to create a Cooper Union that allows for the respectful consideration of opinions from all sides. This is the duty of the entire community, and above all, the duty of JSC.
Most depressing of all is the fact that the real concerns of trans and gender non-conforming students were entirely lost in the commotion. Shouldn’t we be listening to the trans and gender nonconforming people who feel misgendered by binary bathrooms? That’s you! People will try to speak on your behalf. They will twist the issue and bend it back over itself. They will misrepresent your arguments. Worst of all, the vast majority of them will do it inadvertently.
You are irrefutably frustrated. I couldn’t possibly understand, but I think I could begin to imagine the annoyance that must be felt in having to explain for the umpteenth time why this is an important issue. Do you really have to educate every single person in the entire school so you can go pee? Absolutely not.
It’s easy to become frustrated with, even indifferent to, the opinions of those who you feel could never understand you. What isn’t easy is bringing about institutional change in a community that may not fully understand the depth of the issue at hand. When faced with this seemingly impossible task, instead of being abrasive and standoffish to people who don’t yet understand you, perhaps consider how institutional change is actually brought about. Doing so begins with seeding the discussion in a way that helps to develop the language around the issue. In increasing order of escalation, it involves person-to-person discussion, workshops and community building campaigns. In between all of that, there is a need to call out injustices. It should be acknowledged this is an attempt to make a sweeping change to the status quo so it must be explained by one group in order to be understood by everyone. This is the best way to change the status quo.
It is imperative that people see eye-to-eye when enacting change. Moreover, the institutional change brought about by the gender rights movement is directly related to the level of engagement and advocacy that its proponents are willing to do. This is not to say that the GNC and transgender community has not done enough explaining. It is, however, abundantly clear that many people are still not aware and this is resulting in catastrophic miscommunications. It is also clear that the topic of converting bathrooms is deeper than what one group wants over another group. The truth is that it’s multi-dimensional and all wrapped up together. What I can say with certainty is that the solution will inevitably come from within.
Read this op-ed again, but this time, don’t think about bathrooms and gender issues at all. Replace those thoughts with any issue you think the Cooper community faces right now. Write down your response, come talk to me. I’m here to listen. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org