Verbum Ultimum: We Need R-E-S-P-E-C-T

We must embrace differing views — and civility — for a better Dartmouth.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 1/27/17 12:35am

“This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” That was a motion passed by the Oxford Union Society on Feb. 9, 1933. Argued by pro-Soviet students and philosopher C.E.M. Joad, the motion supported a pacifist United Kingdom, one built upon peace and tolerance. It was heartily opposed by, amongst others, Quintin Hogg, later Baron Hailsham of St. Marylebone, later a Conservative Party politician, who refused to shake his opponent’s hand at the debate’s conclusion, because he was so angered by what he saw as an unpatriotic resolution.

But, despite the acrimonious disagreement, the debate was a reasoned one, a passionate one and a respectful one. It was mainly respectful and freedom of speech was held up as an essential virtue, even as fascism and communism — and therefore oppression of expression — spread across Europe. When, three weeks after the debate, Randolph Churchill — the son of Sir Winston — tried to have the motion expunged from the union’s records, he was voted down 750 to 138 at a meeting much better attended than the actual debate. To add insult to injury, he was then pursued by gleeful students attempting to debag him before he found that he had been fined by the city’s police for illegal parking.

This — barring any removal of pants or parking offenses — should be our goal at Dartmouth. Intellectually rigorous debate must rage here, but it must be respectful, cordial and exercised between passionate, decent people who express their ideas through words and reason, not through harmful actions. Our campus recently experienced such a debate. Timothy Messen ’18 held a discussion on the Green on the issue of flag burning, a proxy he utilized to highlight issues with President Donald Trump’s policies, including his stances on nuclear weapons, immigration and civil rights.

Messen’s discussion was attended by veterans and bikers, many supportive of Trump, as well as many Dartmouth students who held varying views both on Trump and flag burning. Messen and his opponents spoke about ideas and did not trade insults or outrages. They disagreed, but on the whole they were respectful. We, as Dartmouth students, ought to feel pride that our campus played host to such a reasonable, respectful exchange of ideas, mostly devoid of ad hominem attacks or trite bickering.

And Messen isn’t alone. Conservatives, liberals, the new left — they’re all engaged in an ongoing and meaningful debates on this campus. While there are moments when that debate can be harmful to respectful discourse — as when students tore down a display erected by the College Republicans in the Collis Center or when members of The Dartmouth Review destroyed a protest aimed at the apartheid regime in South Africa — most students are at least willing to hear opposing views, even if they don’t like them. Failing to hear opposing views is antithetical to Dartmouth’s being: the idea of openness, of political debate in which all views are welcomed, whether they are right or left, liberal or conservative.

We ought to be an open society, one that embraces respectful civil discourse and pluralism, accepting and hearing many ideas and beliefs. That is the heart of a liberal arts education. Diversity of thought is every bit as important — indeed, it is more important — than diversity of class or ethnicity or race or gender. Freedom of thought, open debate and inclusive dialogue are why we go to college. If you only hear your own views reinforced, if you isolate yourself from a conservative position or if you shield yourself from left-wing thought, you are not fulfilling your duties as a student.

One piece of good news to come out of Trump’s election has been a newfound participatory nature in American politics. Not only has Trump inspired millions of Americans who felt left behind by the political system — including many residents of rural areas who feel forgotten and belittled — but he has also energized his opposition in new ways, bringing people of all stripes together, causing Americans to pay more attention to the news and to our government. Love or hate Trump, that is for the best. Our republic is built upon participation and thus it only works when we discuss, when we participate, when we hear each other’s ideas.

In ancient Athens, the lawgiver Draco — from whom our word “draconian” takes its root — gave a speech so brilliant that his supporters “threw so many hats and shirts and cloaks on his head that he suffocated,” according to the Suda. We must not be so quick to praise any leaders today. Instead, let us hear them — and then hear opposition — and so to build a better society through forums for more open debate.

The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.