Colleges should welcome political dissent

Since publishing an article titled “Politicization of VSA should be questioned in election,” an admittedly controversial subject, I have received a great deal of pushback from people on campus. I have been called hurtful things and criticized personally. However, I in no way wish to portray myself as a victim. Far from it, in fact. I put my controversial ideas out there knowing what the likely response would be. I wanted to take the opportunity to qualify some of my previous assertions and defend free speech as a virtue of liberal democracy.

What concerned and discouraged me was not the contentious debate that ensued from my article, but rather the fact that many people were trying to make me feel a sense of shame for speaking my mind and sharing my opinion. Why? Because my opinion goes against what I believe is the status quo at Vassar. Some people even tried to shame me for going so far as to state my pacifist that people shouldn’t be physically attacked for their political views. I am far from a right-wing conservative. I’m a registered Democrat with mostly liberal and progressive views. My opinion is nonetheless confronted with hostility, treated as blasphemy and dismissed without engagement for simply suggesting that progressivism often eschews political pluralism.

I would like to make a plea for a less-toxic political environment and for more free and equitable discourse at Vassar. I urge student organizations and academic departments to facilitate hosting speakers representing divergent political views at Vassar. These views might include those of moderates, conservatives and libertarians among others.

It is important to note that there are speakers that have absolutely no place speaking at Vassar. One example is Milo Yiannopoulos whose goals as a speaker are not to educate but rather to provoke hatred, anger and violence amongst his progressive opponents. Another is Alex Jones, who goes beyond simple political discourse to advocate direct violence against his political counterparts. One final example would be Ann Coulter who, like Jones and Yiannopoulos, often distorts or ignores facts to suit her personal narrative, often to disparage or deny the humanity of marginalized peoples. All three peddle in racism, sexism and classism.

So what concrete effect would hosting dissenting voices have at Vassar? Well, there are three primary purposes that I think having dissenting voices represented at Vassar would accomplish.

First, it would help set Vassar apart from the many left-leaning colleges that have embraced violence or stifling of political diversity and freedom of speech in response to political discourse. Recently there have been many instances of problematic reactions to controversial speakers such as at Berkeley in February, where anti-fascist protesters and alt-right protesters clashed violently in response to the speaking engagement of Milo Yiannopoulos, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. There was also an instance at Middlebury in which “one protester pulled [a professor]’s hair and injured her neck” (“Protesters aggressively confront controversial scholar,” Boston Globe, 03.04.2017).

I have faith that Vassar is an open-minded and intellectual enough community to eschew outright violence and pursue more peaceful and effective methods of opposition, or even constructive participation.

The second thing it might accomplish is breaking the Vassar bubble and helping to decrease the extent to which Vassar’s left leaning political environment insulates the campus from political realities. The fact is that conservatives exist. In fact, they are in power in 33 of 71 states in the International Democratic Union, an alliance of center-right. And that 33 does not include states that are ruled by right-wing or far right parties. In fact, it would not be wildly unjustified to assume that the majority of global governance is in the hands of right-of-center governments.

That being said, learning how to properly engage hostile or even oppressive ideologies can only happen when the person engaging them has a solid understanding of their views. If one spends all four years of college learning only about progressive politics, listening to progressive lectures and reading progressive literature, students’ only understanding of conservatism will be from a progressive perspective. This type of one–sided education that shuts out alternative worldviews is fundamentally flawed and will likely lead to a warped understanding of the ideologies and the experiences of one’s political opposites.

Most importantly, I think hosting dissenting voices might give much needed voice to students who do not normally engage in political discourse at Vassar.

On the contrary, allowing a discourse between groups with divergent world-views would likely facilitate a greater understanding of opposing viewpoints and worldviews and hopefully allow for greater compromise and empathy in the future–while allowing for problematic ideologies to become (peacefully) excised from such discourse. I personally would fight just as hard for progressives if I went to Liberty University, where they represent a small minority of students, if I found that they similarly had suppressed voices.

A recent study shows that the majority of students concur with both of my assertions and my beliefs. According to this study, conducted by Gallup and published by the Knight foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the freedom of the press and the media, “54% [of students] say the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive” (“Free Expression on Campus,” Knight Foundation, 2016). So a majority of students nationwide believe that freedom of speech is stifled on campuses, but do they think that is a bad thing? They do, overwhelmingly. When asked if they think “colleges should or should not be able to establish policies that restrict expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups?” a vast majority, 72 percent, said they should not. Ending racism, sexism and other oppression on campus is, of course, essential. This work does not have to come at the expense of nuanced discourse and dialogue across difference.

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