Discouraging Dissent Stifles Intellectual Growth

Aaron Pressman, Columnist

The first tenet listed in Oberlin College’s mission statement is to “graduate … students who have learned to think with intellectual rigor, creativity, and independence.” Yet it seems to be increasingly common on campus for students who make up the majority opinion to stifle dissent. We must allow for a free flow of ideas, and students must exhibit the intellectual capability to respect dissent. I have been disappointed with the frequency with which students holding popular beliefs on campus immediately dismiss the views of those who disagree. I find this especially problematic at a school that so strongly prides itself on tolerance, acceptance and diversity.

All too often, students dismiss dissenting views as “violent” so as to avoid having to acknowledge their existence. This contradicts the principles of both free speech and intellectual discourse. Even if we are talking about extreme examples of racist speech, such as comments made by white supremacists, it is best that we know when people truly hold these thoughts. By allowing these comments to be expressed, the worst-case scenario is that we know who holds racist opinions and, in some cases, can take measures to avoid interacting with them. At best, we can come together in opposition to the hateful comments and start a movement. Regardless, suppression of speech does not suppress beliefs, and as long as these ideas are out there, it is best for everyone to know what they are and who holds them.

However, nearly every case of stifling speech on campus I have observed is not one of these extreme examples of racist or otherwise prejudiced speech held by extremists. Most of the statements students attempt to stifle represent commonly held beliefs on campus. This does not mean that no one will find these beliefs to be racist or hateful in some capacity, and I can think of a lot of examples of mainstream opinions I believe are prejudiced. However, this is all the more reason to engage people with these opinions. In order to make real change, we cannot pretend that mainstream political opinions we deem hateful do not exist.

An example is the Black Lives Matter movement. According to a poll conducted earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute, only 49 percent of those polled believe that the recent police killings in Ferguson, Staten Island and Baltimore are part of a pattern in the way that police treat Black Americans, yet I have observed many students quickly stifling opinions that question Black Lives Matter and socially ostracizing those who would dare make such a claim. Students trying to silence this opinion generally claim that it is violent and harmful and refuse to acknowledge its existence. While I would vehemently challenge anyone who argues that there is no racism in policing in the United States, and I have had plenty of intellectual debates with people who do hold this belief, I certainly would never attack individuals with this belief personally or refuse to engage them in conversation. All this does is anger the speaker and cause me to lose an argument before I even begin it. Instead, by engaging dissenters and respecting their opinions, I can potentially change someone’s point of view. This does not mean passive-aggressively telling speakers that I am going to educate them but rather stating my disagreement with their opinions and not with them as people.

I am not saying that no one should ever be offended by speech. After all, the whole point of free speech is to protect speech that offends people. If free speech only went as far as to protect non-offensive speech, we would not need to institutionalize it because it would never be challenged. People can rightfully perceive speech as hateful or emotionally harmful and respond with free speech of their own. However, I caution against the illogical dismissal of arguments without consideration. This is what unnecessarily aggravates people and regresses society. Departure from common sense and the use of ad hominem arguments will not be accepted in society after leaving Oberlin. Understanding that some people in this world will make offensive comments, and learning how to respond in a civilized manner is an important part of the college experience.

Many students may actually find that they will change their stance on a lot of issues through intellectual discussion. In general, speakers do not have malicious or offensive intentions but are trying to do what they believe is best. The students who are quick to silence the opposition need to understand that, just like anyone else, they will be wrong sometimes. Approaching discussion with an open mind and acknowledging the existence of opposing opinions may cause students to change their opinions from time to time. This is not only a fundamental purpose of college but a great way to adapt our opinions and truly better the world.

I do not expect everyone to agree with my arguments. I not only respect that but will have accomplished my goal if this article sparks intellectual thought or discussion. Though I hope this does not happen, I will not be surprised if some members of the Oberlin community call this article “violent” and dismiss it without considering my argument. If you read up to the second paragraph and began to find my article violent, I encourage you to think about what I have to say. If you still disagree with my arguments, write a letter to the editor in opposition. I only ask that if you choose to express your dissent, you do so by attacking my arguments instead of attacking my character.