“Words hurt.” These are words every one of us have heard from an early age, yet for some of us the real impact of this statement only became evident in the past few weeks. With nothing more than a whiteboard, a question and two board markers, the Critical Engagement (CritEn) Committee managed to spark some powerful and heated debates. Addressing interrogating issues relating to gender, language and inclusivity, the whiteboard became a source of contempt and excitement.
However, one morning, after some shockingly direct comments had been left on the board, it was taken away. A lot of people were confused and angry about this, so some Harmonites approached our Primaria, Jana van Schalkwyk, and asked for an explanation, after which it was announced that there would be a meeting to discuss The Whiteboard. After a lengthy (and at times emotional) meeting, it was decided that The Whiteboard would return to its place beside Klein Knersis.
The implementation, and especially the removal, of this whiteboard exposed some very prominent truths. It was brought up in the meeting that people seem to be much braver behind a mask of anonymity, willing to attack and disagree with peoples’ comments in very direct, and sometimes hurtful, ways. A comparison was drawn between the board and arguments that often occur on social media when people are able to argue without coming face to face with their opposition.
This is certainly true for the whiteboard, but is it always a bad thing? There’s a persistent trend in modern society that makes one feel obligated to always be nice and understanding, and never oppose people too directly. Just to be clear, I’m not against being nice to people at all, but I do think that it can create a false sense of comfort when it is faked. Many people felt that this whiteboard was the only place where they could speak their unedited mind without receiving criticism or funny looks.
There was also a lot of debate about the infamous arrows that people use to comment on what others have said and give their own opinion in contrast to someone else’s. I think that too much of this debate was focused on the arrows themselves, and how to improve them, instead of addressing who was behind them and how they impacted the entire board.
The Whiteboard is meant to spark debate, generate ideas and allow everyone who reads it a glimpse into a perspective which they may never have encountered. A crucial part of this was the use of arrows, as they allowed people to have conversations and expand their ideas.
However, simply drawing an arrow and writing, “no” or “what do you mean?” in response to someone’s opinion is not very constructive. The idea of an arrow is to ask a question or present a different opinion, not to devalue or undermine someone else’s.
The biggest issue brought to the discussion revolved around the reasons surrounding the removal of the whiteboard. Many people were angry over the fact that when direct comments were made about specific Harmonites last year, nothing was done but when similarly direct comments were made about someone else this year, the board was taken away. This is indicative of where the power and priorities in this residence lie.
Many ladies of Harmonie felt as if their experiences and opinions were being undermined and this caused the tension to rise. This element of the whiteboard removal cannot be ignored and the House Committee did offer an apology for this. The meeting then moved on to discussing various ways in which to improve the board and debating certain rules and restrictions. One could argue that this was rather contradictory, as one of the board’s most important features is the freedom it allows people, and that the reality is that the board reflects the people who write on it. In other words, by making rules about what and when someone can write something, one limits the number of people who will write something.
One thing that this whole issue has exposed is the power that people and their words can have. Both sides of the board were covered weekly in people’s opinions and ideas. Friday lunch times were also used to host insightful CritEn discussions. It was words that got the board taken away, and words which asked for it back.
I don’t think that any Harmonite can deny or ignore the power that The Whiteboard has. It is the good kind of power, one that encourages discussion and prompts people to think outside of their comfort zones and engage with perspectives that differ from their own. The reappearance of The Whiteboard at Klein Knersis is an opportunity for Harmonites to expand their understanding of their family in this residence, and I hope that this issue will remind everyone who passes the board to reflect on its importance, as well as their own power to engage effectively with their fellow Harmonites. Every person has a voice that matters, so let’s use this whiteboard to remind one other of that.
By Marie Mjacu