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Dempsey talk misses mark

November 15, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the Bowdoin Orient Editorial Board.

Last night, actor Patrick Dempsey, H’13 sat down with Marcus Williams ’21, Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) chair of diversity and inclusion, for a conversation serving as the keynote address for No Hate November. Though the topic at hand was a dialogue on dyslexia, many of the audience’s questions focused not on the implications of living with the disability, but rather on clarifying what it actually is.

Dempsey and Williams spoke before a packed Morell Lounge about their experiences with dyslexia, bringing more visibility to ableism and disability than we typically see on this campus.

BSG created No Hate November in the aftermath of a string of bias incidents in 2013. Its stated goal is to be “a month dedicated to remembering past bias incidents at Bowdoin and promoting an inclusive, respectful campus.” This year’s No Hate November events reflect a broadening in the scope of the program. In addition to Dempsey’s keynote, BSG promoted a range of events planned by other student groups, including those planned by the Native American Students Association in honor of Native American Heritage Month.

We acknowledge BSG’s effort to diversify No Hate November programming. However, we believe this keynote event, as it was framed, fell short of their goal.

The preparation for Dempsey’s keynote and the planned-meet-and-greet afterwards did little to address the impacts of disabilities or how students might go about changing their behavior in response to others’ needs. Living with a disability ought to be discussed far more than it is on this campus, and Dempsey’s message that it can make educational environments especially tough should not go unheeded.

In order to ensure that Dempsey’s address has the kind of meaningful impact we would like to see from a No Hate November keynote, the conversation needs to be continued and connected to the experiences of Bowdoin students.

Moreover, priority for a meet-and-greet following the keynote was given to those who attended “Land and Waters Around Us: A Discussion on Indigenous Lands and Acknowledgements.”

While both of these events are valuable to the College community, we fail to see the connection between them. We can and should ask the BSG why they were tethered, but in fairness, we should also ask the student body: why BSG felt the need to incentivize attendance at the land acknowledgement panel. Is there a sense that turnout would have been poor otherwise? Perhaps we should reflect on that.

In the spirit of having productive conversations that continue beyond a brief panel, what if, in order to attend Dempsey’s meet-and-greet, one had to attend a breakout discussion on disability on campus? This would have linked the incentive to the purpose of the talk itself, creating an opportunity for students to engage with the subject on a deeper level.

Greater visibility for marginalized identities is always a step forward. Using a dynamic guest like Dempsey with huge across-the-board draw is a productive way to begin these conversations.

But there’s a mismatch here, a disconnect between the reality of the event and its stated intent. If our focus is on reflecting on the past and working actively towards a more just, inclusive future, we need a No Hate November with substance, with relevant events preceding and following that take the conversation further.

Though Dempsey’s presence certainly drew a crowd, BSG’s orchestration of the keynote failed to fulfill the ultimate goal of No Hate November. The absence of a dialogue addressing disabilities on campus in connection to the keynote was notable and constitutes a missed opportunity on the part of BSG.

This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is composed of Emily Cohen, Brianna Cunliffe, Roither Gonzales, Alyce McFadden, Nina McKay, Reuben Schafir and Jaret Skonieczny.


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  1. Class of '04 says:

    I struggle to see the fault in the talk. He gave a personal account of living with dyslexia? Is that fair?

    And it’s the Orient’s position that Dempsey failed to adequately tie his experience to Bowdoin? Or that the talk didn’t help Bowdoin students better navigate the waters of ableism? Isn’t it enough to learn about a form of disability and its challenges? You say most of the questions were about trying to understand dyslexia. Was this another fault of the talk? That Dempsey didn’t adequately explain what it is, which required clarifying questions? Maybe students wanted to know more about it, because they were interested. Perhaps students felt it would increase their awareness around people with dyslexia. Maybe it’s that simple?

    Orient Opinion pieces and Editorials routinely go after the minutia of every event on campus, breaking it apart to find fault or evidence of wrongdoing by…someone, something, the Administration.

    He gave a talk about his life with dyslexia. I struggle to see how any perceived shortcomings of the talk warrant this level of scrutiny. Help me understand.

    What is the Orient’s position on this week’s impeachment testimony? Protests in Hong Kong? Chile? There’s a world out there.

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