Fervent Progressivism Blocks Other Views

Chloe Vassot, Contributing Writer

The Oberlin College community is almost notorious for its open embrace of views that lie largely outside the mainstream American political culture. Students are known as extremely accepting of people and opinions that would be ostracized elsewhere, giving Oberlin a reputation of “open-mindedness.”

But unfortunately for a minority of students on campus, the “open-mindedness” of the community goes only one way: toward a rejection of unpopular views in favor of unwavering adherence to the political left.

This was something that attracted me to Oberlin — coming from a community almost as well known for its conservatism as Oberlin is for its liberalism, I looked forward to finally being around people who agreed with me. I equated the presence of liberal values with acceptance of differing opinions.

But in any place where one set of views is so thoroughly suppressed, there is also a peculiarly entrenched closed-mindedness and a refusal to let unpopular opinions be heard.

Being open-minded does not merely entail adhering to beliefs that are marginalized or unpopular elsewhere; being open-minded means being able to listen to all sides of an argument, even the side that many have categorized as ignorant.

As a self-professed liberal-minded first-year, I love the mainstream Oberlin culture and the continual validation of my own opinions and beliefs. But other first-years who have more moderate or less fervently progressive views can feel that their ideas are excluded and dismissed. This is one of a few reasons some are choosing to transfer to another school or strongly considering that possibility for the coming year.

It is sadly ironic that a community that professes to value freedom of thought and expression can concurrently shut out moderate (and especially conservative) thoughts and ways of thinking.

To take an extreme example, the general perception on campus of people who are anti-abortion is that they are ignorant, misogynistic and do not respect the fundamental rights of women. Since being at Oberlin, the intense rhetoric and mindset against people with such conservative views has begun to strike me as too simplistic and naïve, and very unfair toward people who actually hold these views.

I personally am very much in favor of a woman’s right to choose an abortion. But I’ve had something I’ve only now begun to appreciate: the privilege of knowing and respecting women my age (and older) who hold anti-abortion views, and their stance does not come from a place of hate or ignorance, but from their more deeply held conviction of every human’s right to be alive. It’s difficult for me to unequivocally ridicule an opinion that stems, in some cases like these, from a place of compassion. My reaction to defend people who I strongly disagree with, on this subject as well as others, has showed me that focusing on only an idea and not those who believe in the idea could lead to misunderstanding and anger; it is not helpful in creating constructive arguments for or against one’s opinion.

I can no longer see the issue of abortion as simply right or wrong, as I did before I came to Oberlin. It took being here, surrounded by a new set of majority beliefs, to allow me to see the benefit of fully listening to both sides of any argument — and maybe especially the argument that forces one to re-evaluate one’s own thought processes.

Creating a safe and open environment for people of all views and values, something Oberlin at least professes to do, does not come from silencing opinions that may have the ability to offend or cause discomfort, but from allowing an atmosphere of mutual respect and compassion to flourish.

A true culture of open-mindedness is something Oberlin would do well to cultivate.