Chun: Existence of Resistance
An exploration of when even the worst ideas have value.
Biosphere 2 was an interesting experiment. Built in Arizona and currently owned by the University of Arizona, it includes seven entirely self-contained ecosystems where plants, animals, soil, water, bacteria and animals can exist. But a fascinating issue arose regarding the trees that grew in Biosphere 2 — they died because there was no wind. Wind, and the resulting tensile and compressive stress placed on the tree, force the creation of stress wood in which the cells of the tree are arranged at angles rather than purely vertically. The tree is stronger for the adversity. This is a metaphor served on a silver platter for a lazy writer, and here’s how I’m going to use it: our most accepted, reasonable and applauded opinions are trees without wind; our biosphere is college. It is these simple laws we’ve come to accept — the equality of all people, the power of democracy and the dangers of isolation — that are the most endangered when we come to college.
The rise of white supremacy and fascism across the world seems to have caught us flat-footed. As we suddenly find ourselves defending views that we used to think were unassailable, we discover that our arguments aren’t as sharp or as universally appealing as we think.
World leaders are struggling to articulate why exactly free trade is overwhelmingly beneficial as those communities devastated by new competition voice their dissent, citing their suffering as proof of global trade’s failure. There is ample economic literature on the benefits of free trade done well, but leaders weren’t prepared to articulate these arguments in an empathetic, palatable way. And that’s fair, because they never had to — they thought the fight against isolationism had been fought and won. They didn’t expect disagreement to come back.
This narrative has played out over countless issues. We weathered the winter of our content in our universities and colleges, spaces we’d like to think thrived on vigorous debate, peer review and challenging ideals. But in such protective bubbles, we’ve never needed to challenge our most basic ideals. Worse, we’ve developed a hair trigger reaction to perceived attacks on these values, to the point where honest slip-ups are viewed as all-out assaults on our humanity. In doing so, we’ve cultivated a sanitized environment where we’re only truly prepared to defend the views we’ve categorized as available for debate. When neo-Nazis and isolationists come arguing for a white ethno-state or the dissolution of the Eurozone and when the word “problematic” is no longer an argument-ending accusation, our arguments grind to a screeching halt. We simply aren’t prepared to deal with someone who doesn’t share the same basic assumptions about what is right and what is wrong.
But we have to be prepared. Once our beliefs about core liberal values become dogma, we lose the reasoning we need to fight for them. This is not to say that these values are wrong, but rather that they are so important that their defense can never stray from our mind. We must always be prepared to rise to the defense of these values, and this preparation requires wind. To properly stress test ourselves, we have to welcome views that push us, that make us angry.
Perhaps allowing these views to have a voice in our collective conscience does do some harm. Maybe it truly is impossible to extricate the expression of abhorrent views with the abhorrent policies they encourage and the real harm those policies hold. But even so, a world without abhorrent views becomes sluggish and feeble, no longer able to defend its core values. When these values are inevitably challenged, not by some controversial campus speaker but by millions of voters, such a world is caught unaware as many of us have been over the last year.
Maybe the memory of Nazism or of executions without fair trial is enough to sustain our vigilance. Germany has certainly done its very best to keep its past as a reminder — the Reichstag preserves graffiti left by conquering Soviet Soldiers — but America has not, and as recent times have shown, the past comes back to haunt us whether we remember it or not.
Academia lives in a bubble where everyone accepts the exact same precepts. The more time we spend at Dartmouth, the more we seem convinced that everyone will agree on certain truths and the less we are convinced that these truths need defending and constant promotion. Our most dangerous tendency is to not purge vile philosophies with the fire of reason but to take away their voice and let them simmer in silence until it all boils over.