Sahney: Navigating Opinions in the Age of Information Overload

The low ranking of Dartmouth as a space for free speech is unfair, but we must grapple with how to ensure we respect intellectual diversity and reduce echo chambers on campus.

by Arjun Sahney | 11/9/23 4:05am

The state of free speech, intellectual honesty and authentic representation of opinion on college campuses, particularly within the Ivy League, has become a topic of increasing debate. With the rise of socio-political influences such as “ultra-wokeism” and the “alt-right,” among many others, I believe it’s important to discuss how these movements influence speech, truth and opinion, and to explore how, as students, we can best refine and represent our opinions. I do firmly believe that the Dartmouth community needs to further emphasize intellectual diversity, honesty and thoughtfulness — especially given the state of free speech at fellow Ivy League institutions. 

First, it’s important to consider recent context surrounding free speech on campus. In September 2023, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression published their 2024 College Free Speech Rankings. Dartmouth received a ranking of #240 out of the 248 colleges surveyed — a disappointing rating to say the least. The rankings were based on a number of criteria including “disruptive content,” “administrative support” and “tolerance for controversial speakers.” Frankly, I felt this ranking was too harsh. 

This sentiment seemed to be shared by The Dartmouth Review. However, even the president of the Dartmouth College Libertarians stated that “the Dartmouth Libertarians have never experienced “disruptive conduct … from the spring of 2020 to today” and went on to question the ranking. While anecdotal, the idea that FIRE’s ranking was too harsh echoes a relative consensus I have found shared among peers and in courses.

Subsequent to the despicable attacks on the Israeli people, a number of reactions by Ivy League student groups and faculty members prompted widespread donor backlash. For instance, a student group at Harvard University held the “Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” while a professor at Cornell University labeled the attack as “exhilarating.” In light of unsatisfactory denunciations by university administrations, donors such as Bill Ackman, Leslie Wexner and more have expressed extreme discontent with their alma maters, which include Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Zooming out, we can see these incidents are not unprecedented. 

Over the past few years, we have seen the rise of multiple socio-political movements such as “wokeism,” “eco-anarchism” and the “alt-right.” For a generation overloaded with information, it may seem like the expectation is to have an opinion about every political topic. With no immediate existential threat to deal with, a significant portion of young people have found solace and purpose in socio-political movements. 

To clarify, I don’t believe there is anything unjust about the original intentions of a number of these movements, but I think that it is problematic when people adopt the default opinion of a certain body of thought without scrutinizing it. This is exacerbated when opinions outside of the dominant body of thought are deemed extreme, prompting even more polarization and less room for resolution. 

For instance, in the realm of scientific inquiry, the initial widespread criticism and subsequent vindication of the lab leak theory regarding the origins of COVID-19 illustrate how an idea, once labeled as a conspiracy and outside the realm of acceptable discourse, has been reconsidered and is now a subject of legitimate investigation by the scientific community. This phenomenon can happen with many issues across the political spectrum. So how do we deal with this? 

Given the recent student arrests, there has been much discourse about the College’s role in relation to freedom of speech. The threat of “physical action” is indeed a serious topic, and protestors should be more considerate of the language they use; the College’s reaction may not be correct in most people’s eyes, but it is understandable. Nevertheless, going forward, I believe that the College should largely avoid needlessly escalating events, aiming to be as charitable as possible. 

Furthermore, the College should endeavor to promote an atmosphere conducive to bipartisan discourse, or in President Beilock’s words, “brave spaces.” By continuing to invite speakers from all sides of the political spectrum, Dartmouth can avoid placing students in echo chambers. Unlike other schools such as the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan, who both received backlash for canceling talks from conservatives such as Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk, Dartmouth should prioritize getting such speakers on campus. 

Shifting from the College to the individual level, the solution lies in two parts. First, I think it is up to you as an individual to seek out information about current affairs, and if you don’t feel like you’re informed enough, you don’t need to have an opinion. It’s okay to say, “honestly, I haven’t read enough to have an opinion,” rather than share an opinion that is uninformed. 

Furthermore, I think there are far more people who consider their opinions thoughtfully but choose not to discuss controversial issues for fear of being impolite. To those people, I would highly encourage you to speak up — the whole point of an opinion is to get closer to the truth. In the corridors of academia and beyond, it's essential we challenge echo chambers and recognize the value in dissenting views. 

To mitigate the risk of "cancel culture," it’s important to stand firm in your convictions while remaining respectful and informed. Engage in dialogue on online platforms known for balanced discourse, such as DebateArt and Kialo, or generally respectful dialogue with friends in real life. You should also use credible sources to support your viewpoints. This approach can maintain the integrity of your stance, regardless of the prevailing winds of public opinion. By seeking out a diversity of perspectives and fostering genuine debates, we can move beyond mere talking points and toward a deeper understanding of each other’s points of view.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.