Toutonghi Talk Sparks Controversy

By Sahil Veeramoney

About two weeks ago, on Monday, November 14, the majority of the Upper School community entered chapel completely oblivious as to what was to come.

Pauls Toutonghi, novelist and nonfiction writer, was scheduled to give an author talk to the student body during office hours, but as the conversation progressed, it gravitated towards something more controversial — politics. More specifically, the election.

Initially, for me at least, the discussion was captivating. Hearing Toutonghi talk about his past experiences and inspirations, his encounters with Nihilism, and his multi-dimensional background enabled me to forget the fact that Office Hours had been re-scheduled and engage in the conversation.

However, as his talk started to dive into the political realm, I, among many others members of the US community, began to feel restless regarding his convictions about Trump supporters. The atmosphere in chapel was obviously tense, and students and faculty were visibly shocked. But one of the most surprising aspects of the reception to the author talk, however, was that several members of the Upper School were offended regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. And that to me is a sign that he took a step too far.

Not even a week prior to the discussion, the election results had poured in and left many members of the OES community startled, upset, and even fearful. So, when hearing Toutonghi assert that all Trump supporters were patriarchal, xenophobic, misogynistic, racist, and didn’t understand the meaning of their vote, many were left struggling to grasp why this “author talk” had taken such an expected turn.

I had a chance to sit down with Mike G., one of few who openly questioned Toutonghi during the Q&A, on his thoughts regarding the speech. Like almost everyone, Mike had no preparation for the speaker in terms of knowing what topic was going to be discussed, and as a result his reception to the presentation is hardly surprising.

“I had the impression that what he wanted us to get initially was the election results have been hard for lots of people and that we need to find a way to create dialogue and come back together as a country. And then, he undermined that by basically labelling about half the United States’ voters as misogynists, fearmongers, and homophobes,” Mike said.

“I am not a seer. I don’t know why people vote the way they did. I think it’s arrogant for him to say that he knows why and that the voter doesn’t. I am in the same political camp as the speaker but I am not comfortable about the way he painted people on both sides of the electorate with a broad brush, ” he continued.

Mike’s statements bear significant truths. It is no mystery that the country is in an extremely divided state right now and initially it seemed like Toutoungi was advocating for meaningful dialogue as a step to overcome the separation. However his subsequent comments about the Trump and Trump supporters made it difficult for anyone to recognize Toutonghi intentions. And if this discussion struck an unpleasant chord for people like Mike, who are in the same political camp as Toutonghi, it is hard to imagine that Trump supporters were receptive to the talk.

As someone who does not support Trump myself, I reached out to a student support, who wishes to remain anonymous, to gain perspective on how s/he  received the presentation. “I am not homophobic, sexist, or racist, and it makes sad that I would just be labelled like that.

I found that his presentation was ineffectual in proving his point because he failed to recognize that Trump voters are people, too, and overall, I think it harmed his important message of healing.” This is a fair assessment judging by the fact if Toutonghi had been up there criticizing Clinton in the same respect as he did for Trump, most members of the US community would be even more upset.

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion but it is also required for everyone to respect others’ opinions as well. The general consensus is that, through his controversial comments, Toutoungi was unable to, at least for Trump supporters, to demonstrate such understanding for the opposing party’s beliefs.

Not all responses to Toutonghi presentation were negative however. “I respect the comments that he made and doing so in such context,” said student body president Daniel E. I, too, respect the fact that the speaker had the ability to talk about to share his opinions and beliefs. However, it is clear, in the manner that many Upper School community members received the author talk, that it could have been approached in a much more productive manner.

The country is in a divide right now, something that almost everyone acknowledges. To conclude on a more positive note, I would like to share some words of advice from History Department Chair Mike G: “A democracy requires all of us to talk to each other. Citizens have to engage and discuss with each other. For people who feel fear about the future right now, we need to collectivize and join in solidarity because the only way if things change ever is when groups of people work together.”

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