A night with DiPhi: How UNC's oldest student organization mixes debate with humor
The Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, in their 224th year, also balance tradition with modernity.
Joint Senate President and member of the Dialectic Society Katrina Smith, a senior English major, watches as Sergeant-at-Arms Maggie Pollard, a sophomore political science and public policy double major, takes attendance of Di Phi senators at the society's weekly Monday meeting in New West on Monday, April 8, 2019. Smith wears a top hat and carries a cane as she officiates the meetings and debates. As president of the joint senate, she also wields the power to break ties as in Monday's debate over whether the society would support a motion to ban homeschooling in the country. After an 11-11 tie between both societies, the motion failed with Smith's tiebreaker.
Sam Gee sat on the top floor of New West last Monday night, typing furiously as he scoured Google for a punchline.
At the podium in front of him, Luke De Mott had gone down a rabbit hole. During the formal debate portion of this Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies meeting, designated senators had argued for and against the topic at hand: were J.K. Rowling’s recent retroactive changes to her “Harry Potter” series illegitimate?
Once the floor was open to others, De Mott launched into a sarcastic rant. The senior Phi senator started off with a friendly jab, telling his rival Di senators they “don’t control fiction.” There’s no objective truth to imaginary worlds, he said, and no incorrect interpretations of art. It’s all up to the reader.
Gee’s typing stopped. He’d found his counterpoint. The sophomore Di senator shot his hand up for a query from his third-row desk. When De Mott called on him, Gee quoted a famous line from “Hamlet”: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
“So,” Gee said with a smirk, “is it possible that 'Hamlet' is set on Mars?”
And with that, the chambers of UNC’s oldest student organization erupted in laughter.
For 224 years now, DiPhi has offered a platform for robust debate with competition and friendship on the side. In 2019, the society is a bit more modern than decades prior, with a well-designed website, active social mediapages and senators reading speeches off laptops. But the rich history, most of the procedures and the fundamental goals all remain the same.
“I think a bunch of students having a bunch of opinions and wanting to share them on their own accord is a really cool thing,” said Katrina Smith, a senior and DiPhi’s Joint Senate president this semester. “I don’t think there are many spaces like that, where students come here for fun to do this.”
DiPhi, established in 1795, has its hands in all kinds of UNC history. Most notably, the societies’ use of diploma ribbons — light blue for Dis, white for Phis — helped inspire UNC’s now-famous school colors. The societies, which merged into a joint senate in 1959, helped shape the Honor System and the Yackety Yack yearbook, among other campus institutions.
But if you take a trip to Room 310 in the New West academic hall, DiPhi and the unique students who run it truly come to life.
The space itself is regal, with cream-colored walls, blue trim and four massive golden chandeliers. All of the furniture is wooden, save for a chair made of literal cow hide and cow horns. Portraits of famous DiPhi alumni and honorary members hang wherever they can fit.
“It’s so cool,” said junior Peyton Furtado, Phi’s president. “To just study in some of these chambers and realize that people like Thomas Wolfe and (Joseph) Caldwell and James K. Polk have all been in these rooms and have been doing basically the same thing we’re doing.”
Membership was originally determined by geography. Dis hailed from west of Orange County, Phis hailed from east of Orange County and out-of-state students or those from Orange County got to choose. This rule got looser over the decades, though, and DiPhi officially removed it in the 2000s — the choice is now entirely in the hands of each member senator. Furtado said she chose the Phis because “they’re objectively better.”
“Inferior in every way!” a smiling Di senator shot back from across the room.
Each meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. DiPhi debates start with a resolution, or an opinionated statement. Senators then argue for or against it. This night’s resolution revolved around Rowling, who recently tried to addextrainformation to the “Harry Potter” canon to mixed results. Junior Jack Watson smirked as he introduced the topic.
“First, she said Dumbledore was gay, and I said nothing, because sexuality is a spectrum and I can buy that,” he said. “Then, she said, ‘I never said Hermione wasn’t black,’ and I said, ‘That’s kind of a weird way to say that, but OK.’ And then, she said that wizards used to poop on the floor, and I could say nothing, because it was my fault for retweeting her for so long.”
The debate took off from there. Senators against Rowling’s decision offered strong arguments: that art can’t retroactively be changed, that Rowling should create new diverse art instead.
Those arguing for Rowling did the same. One interesting question brought up: Is publication a true cut-off point for a book, or is it just an artificial boundary placed on the author? All through the debate, senators snapped their fingers when they agreed with something, and they hissed loudly when they didn’t.
Among the structure and carefully curated arguments, though, there’s plenty of humor. Gee created his own obscene revision and joked Dobby the elf had “a 10-inch rod.” Sophomore Mo Van de Sompel decided to push back on the idea that all interpretations of art are valid with an off-the-wall hypothetical.
“I choose to believe that The Very Hungry Caterpillar is not a white supremacist,” Van de Sompel said. “But if the author, Eric Carle, comes out tomorrow and says the caterpillar is a neo-Nazi, do I have to accept that?”
The fun continued into DiPhi’s other main staple — PPMAs, or papers, petitions, memorials and addresses. During this “signature free speech forum,” anyone can rant on whatever they want for up to five minutes.
Senior Kristen Roehrig recounted the panic attack she had in a Washington, D.C., bathroom (“This will be a good story for an interview someday”). Watson talked about how he discovered his inverted nipple (“Lefty goes in; righty goes out”). One senator told the story of a piece of cheese thrown so perfectly it landed inside someone’s pocket; another broke down the phenomenon of orange plastic Garfield telephones washing up on France’s beaches.
“We have lightheartedness in the serious,” sophomore Christina Barta said. “We also have seriousness in the lighthearted.”
The Rowling debate wasn’t exactly intense or political. Such debates are frequent, though. Last month, six senators presented their argument for the best 2020 presidential candidate. In February, DiPhi hosted the second UNC student body president debate. Other topics tackled this semester: the two-child policy, how familiar Americans should be with the Bible and if wars have been beneficial to mankind.
There’s usually a semester quota — one science debate, one policy debate, one literary debate, and so on — but Smith said DiPhi’s been more flexible this spring, and it’s worked. Thanks to a wide array of majors and interests in the society, the balance between serious debates and more lighthearted ones “just ends up happening.”
The meeting didn’t adjourn until past midnight, but, to no surprise, another DiPhi tradition held true. Senators made the short walk from campus to Linda’s Bar & Grill on Franklin Street for baskets of cheese fries.
They'll be back at it again next week with a fresh topic. And they’ll be debating, like they have been for 224 years.
In the words of the DiPhi Facebook page: “The conversations don’t ever have to stop.”