Yuan: All Voices Matter

by Ziqin Yuan | 8/18/16 6:00pm

This past weekend, after an officer shot and killed a 23-year-old black man in Milwaukee on Saturday, unrest enveloped the city. This shooting comes as one of a wave of high profile police shootings this summer. As of mid-August, police have shot and killed close to 600 people, according to The Washington Post.

Last year, I wrote an article titled “Incorrectly Politically Correct,” arguing that being overly politically correct stifles discussion and shelters us from reality. In the year that has elapsed, police brutality and the myriad responses to it have come to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Movements, both at Dartmouth and at campuses across the country, have emerged to discuss racial issues.

In light of this, I need to update my previous stance — we have to go beyond just worrying about being overly politically correct. The majority of people who remain silent on issues do not do so out of fear, or due to prior experiences of being shut down by polarizing parties. In debates concerning social movements and racial equality, especially in the United States, we must share our opinions, whether they are “correct” or not. Rather than shutting down dialogue, as activists and reactionists are prone to do, we must encourage it and discuss all issues openly without being afraid.

Some groups are starting to promote such dialogue. The website Letters for Black Lives notes that it is “a set of crowd sourced, multilingual, and culturally-aware resources aimed at creating a space for open and honest conversations about racial justice, police violence, and anti-Blackness in our families and communities.” Started by Asian Americans and Canadians, it features letters from across the world. Such a space builds a coalition of support for social movements and encourages the people within these movements to look at others not necessarily as outsiders, but as potential partners.

Yet we must go even further. Such sites are effective at building support for movements, but instead of blindly supporting such movements, we need to recognize the issues within them as well as those within the opposing side. This is when the openness to competing ideas comes into play.

In order to change someone’s mind, one cannot shut down their opponents ideas without ever giving them a chance. Many people fighting over polarized issues still use this tactic despite its ineffectiveness. Further, many use an even more ineffective method - bringing up someone’s background and using their percieved “lack” of knowledge or qualification against them to outright dismiss their arguments and experiences as invalid. This shuts down all dialogue, encouraging personal attacks on one’s character.

I recently had an argument with another student about the race-charged controversy over then-New York Police Department officer Peter Liang’s indictment and trial, which saw Liang sentenced to probation after the 2014 fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Akai Gurley. After a while, we both realized we had completely different opinions on the issue, but neither of us wanted to back down. He started to criticize my background and accused me of having done nothing to combat or learn about police brutality. By targeting my character rather than my argument, he effectively turned the conversation from a possible learning opportunity into a personal attack. He quickly apologized after he realized the nature of what he had said. However, the conversation clearly showed me how easy it is for people passionate about certain issues to discount others’ ideas because they perceive them as less learned or “qualified” to speak on those issues.

In the end, a middle ground needs to exist — one where we can discuss issues without being afraid of judgment or critique. To do this, all sides of an issue need to cooperate. Those passionate about the issues must attempt to look at the subject through an uneducated stranger’s eyes and determine a way to explain their reasoning to them without being derogatory, dismissive or holier-than-thou. Those in the center, whether moderate on issues or simply uneducated about them, must be unafraid to ask questions and learn, changing their opinions as they gain insight. In this way, we can work to understand each other’s perspectives when discussing complex issues like racial violence and cultural awareness. Dartmouth, a liberal arts college with students from all over the political and cultural spectrum, is an ideal place to start doing this work. It is an ideal place to challenge the extremely liberal, the extremely conservative and the moderates. It is an ideal place to learn how to discuss polarizing issues effectively and respectfully.