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Plea for a free exchange of ideas

Published: August 22, 2014
Section: Opinions


For many students, this is their first week at Brandeis University. First-years have arrived, and this is the first time they are away from home and exposed to new ideas they could potentially agree or disagree with. Many issues are popular and political: abortion, health care, gun rights, the economy and racial tensions. Others are relatively unheard of outside of campus. Students hold diverse views on these problems. Yet when confronted with ideas and theories that conflict with their own, some attempt to suppress dissent or dismiss their opposers’ contributions. The censorship surrounding the Ayaan Hirsi Ali controversy from last semester is not what Brandeis is about. Universities exist to promote free discussion of all ideas, even controversial and hated ones. All students, regardless of entry year, need to remember something: Dissidents are people too. We must all embrace discussion, and I especially implore first-years to do so in the next year. Be open.

Activists must understand ignorance is not willful disdain. Another student’s interests might not align with yours. Due to the varied interests of our campus populace, one person can go 18 years without encountering gender and race theory, conservativism or post-modern art. Despite widespread belief, this should not offend people. More often than not, people tend to tense up and attack ad hominem dissenting opinions, using logical fallacies and mean words to demonize the free exchange of ideas. This must stop. So what can one inclined to anger do to prevent these outbursts and societal distress?

If ignorance offends you, don’t get angry and dismiss the idea or its discusser. Explore the situation. Take a breath and ask yourself: “Could this be the first time they encountered the idea? Did I fully believe it the first time? Do they need to understand the logic?” One example might be what a trigger warning is. Until a friend sat me down and explained it to me last semester, I had no idea what that meant. For those who do not know, trigger warnings are notices about controversial subjects that might cause flashbacks to certain tragic events for some people. Before Brandeis, I never looked on Tumblr. But it was assumed I knew what trigger warnings were from the get-go, and I was mocked if I asked a question about them. So if one person did not know, imagine the thousand students who don’t. Do not assume that someone else has explained the logic and reasoning behind an issue. Start from square one. Many activists I have argued, met and encountered assume I know the full theory behind their position as well as the facts they have when they debate me. Unless the issue falls within my personal areas of fascination (religion and American history), I would never have heard of it. If you are an activist and want to gain people in the movement, be nonjudgmental.

Be supportive; it might just make or break your influence. People on this campus disagree with me to the bone about everything, but because of their nature, they are my dearest friends. Why? They support my power to dabble around in whatever cause I see fit to spend my time on. For example, I am politically and religiously conservative, a rarity amongst our generation. Overwhelmingly, the campus leans progressively liberal; according to a Brandeis poll, 77 percent of respondents voted for President Obama in the 2012 election. An economics professor openly lambasts supply-side economics and Republicans with nice four letter words. There is much hatred for conservative and libertarian ideas on campus. I am the face of these ideas to my friends. Happily, many of my left-wing friends understand and sympathize with the logic behind the ideas they detest. They see the method in the madness, even when they do not agree with it. That will do more good than if one goes on the offensive and screams “check your privilege.”

Explain ideas simply. A bar called Stonewall was instrumental in the origins of the LGBT rights movement; when someone referred to Stonewall, I thought they meant the Confederate General. It was an embarrassingly long time before someone explained my errors to me. Someone I know once got called nasty names for not knowing the reasoning behind gender-neutral bathrooms. Activists of all causes live in worlds of assumption. This glass bubble must stop being blown. I do not assume that everyone on this campus knows what I know. I am openly Catholic and conservative; I do not mind explaining the mindsets behind certain beliefs. People are diverse beings with equally diverse interests. If we weren’t, society would be a collection of amorphous and impersonal gray blobs. Brandeis is beautiful with vibrant colors and ideas, not with the same shade of gray. We must prevent the graying of ideas by encouraging debate and discussion of various viewpoints. Ensure that your passions do not discriminate against those who do not share them. Value open discussion, not suppression.