Shah: Voices Crying Out

Our intellectual growth depends upon our tolerance for diverse options.

by Rachna Shah | 7/27/17 11:30pm

As an incoming freshman, I do not know much about the campus, but I do know why I chose Dartmouth. The College cultivates learning in both the arts and the sciences, but above all, it embraces community. Dartmouth alumni, faculty and current students alike are eager to share their experiences here. As I wait to join my Dartmouth peers this upcoming fall, I hope to find the following statement to be true: “At Dartmouth, differences are embraced and ideas are challenged.” Yet at Dartmouth, like at many other colleges across the nation, the right to freedom of expression is under debate. As a fundamental right and a pillar for democracy, why is it an issue of such controversy?

It is no secret that today’s political landscape is polarized. One does not have to look beyond the echo chambers of our Facebook feeds and our daily newsletters to see how ideologies influence facts. America’s political parties are increasingly partisan. This is dangerous because our political divisions are no longer constrained only to our personal beliefs, but are now affecting our daily lives. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that marrying or living near someone with a different political ideology causes discomfort to 23 percent of liberals and 30 percent of conservatives. Political polarization is accelerating our transformation into a society where compromise is impossible.

One of the biggest dilemmas revolves around the First Amendment – specifically, the freedom of speech and expression. While certain kinds of speech, like pornography, slander, classified information and hate speech, are not legally protected, the First Amendment gives us the right to hold and express our opinions without censorship or fear of retaliation. This is one of our most fundamental American liberties, and it should not be the bedrock for so much political conflict.

The 1963 case of Edwards v. South Carolina ruled that the First Amendment supported the right of peaceful segregation protesters to march in front of a state house. In the earlier 1949 Terminiello v. Chicago trial, the Supreme Court overturned the arrest of Father Arthur Terminiello, who had criticized various political and racial groups in a Chicago auditorium. The Court expressed that “a function of free speech under our system is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are or even stirs people to anger.”

Free speech does not only extend to the ideas we agree with, but also to philosophies, values and facts we find altogether unpleasant. We must let people decide for themselves which ideas to believe, regardless of their popularity and convenience. In the words of English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

On college campuses, speakers perceived as controversial are often banned. However, “unsafe” is not the same as “uncomfortable,” as Foundation for Individual Rights in Education President Greg Lukianoff said in an interview with NPR. College President Phil Hanlon announced in the spring of 2016, “Freedom to dissent lies at the heart of freedom of expression.” But the demotion of free speech is not always limited to protests and rallies – it also happens in our classrooms. Students from across the political spectrum often feel uneasy about sharing views different from those of their professors and classmates. A different opinion is seen by some as offensive and discomforting rather than as a reasonable position with a strong intellectual basis. Voices not echoing the majority opinion are often not heard in the same way. This leads to a bias in favor of certain agendas and platforms. As a result, our critical thinking risks being obscured by the unanimity of groupthink.

The spirit of academia is to have our opinions tested by people who do not always agree with us. No singular opinion is correct, but in today’s largely intolerant environment, we seem to have forgotten that. Students do not feel open to sharing their personal thoughts with their peers and professors because they fear retaliation and social exclusion. However, bridging our gaps and reconciling our divides is impossible if we are not open to a diversity of viewpoints.

There are undoubtedly individuals with whom we disagree, but it is unwise to remove them completely from our lives. How can we foster intellectual growth without acknowledging dissenting opinions? It is our collective responsibility to engage in honest and difficult conversations. Tolerance can only develop from within ourselves. Picking and choosing what constitutes acceptable free speech is a hypocritical, slippery slope. We should let people speak their minds, and I say that not as a Democrat or a Republican, but as an American defending the First Amendment.

Shah is a member of the incoming Class of 2021, the Dartmouth Open Campus Coalition and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) Student Network.

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