Opinion: Take a seat and get uncomfortable

A disturbing trend has developed across American institutions for higher learning. From Rutgers University, where Condoleezza Rice bowed out of the commencement address in response to campus protests, to the University of California, Berkeley, which cancelled alt-right conservative Milo Yiannopoulos’ appearance, to the University of Florida, who dismissed white nationalist Richard Spencer’s request to speak, controversial speakers are being silenced.

Where’s better than college to grapple with the politics and partisan divisions consuming our nation? College is a formative time in the lives of young adults that facilitates the development of moral and ethical decision-making faculties. Students hone the critical thinking skills to discern fake news from facts and distinguish voices of hate from voices of reason.

It is thus crucial that a wide array of opinions from across the political spectrum be shared to shatter the echo chamber of partisan politics in which most Americans insulate themselves. A failure to allow these different voices can have serious consequences. We now know that the discontent, anger, and sense of abandonment felt by so many Americans prior to the 2016 presidential election was not only grossly ignored by many Democrats but was likely responsible for Donald Trump’s presidency.

Nobody wins through the exclusion of the ideas and beliefs of opposing parties. The best way to ensure that we find forward-thinking, creative solutions to the menacing problems facing the United States is by listening to and learning from one another.

Further still, limiting speech is a slippery slope. There is no infallible arbiter of what is or is not permissible. In order to curb arbitrarily contrived prohibitions, we must err on the side of caution when stopping speech.

But, we cannot excuse racist, homophobic, or sexist rhetoric. Indeed, Brentwood School Director of Equity and Inclusion Trina Moore-Southall reminds us to be cognizant of the tremendous ramifications that hate speech can have on a person and of the systems of oppression that it reflects.

Even so, by giving people like Yiannopoulos a chance to speak in an open college setting, the flawed nature of their beliefs can be exposed in a constructive way, rather than allowing them to go unseen, uncontested, and unrefuted.

Opposing student groups should disseminate information debunking commentators’ falsehoods before and after speeches and offer discussion groups or rebuttals. Professors and university presidents should continue to go on record to tell students that they disagree with the speakers’ espoused beliefs. Students should protest peacefully, without ever resorting to violence, or should simply not attend these lectures if they do not want to hear discriminatory rhetoric.

Obviously, the security of students and lecturers is a paramount priority, so universities must take precautions to protect all parties from violence. Further, it is important to be aware of, and sensitive to, the perspectives of those who feel personally attacked or threatened by the bigoted language in some of these speeches. Marginalized voices already are too often unheard and neglected, and colleges should be mindful of this when talking to students about speakers. But, being empathetic is different from shielding students from ugly dialogue.

For the sake of educational enrichment, decreasing polarization, and gaining mutually beneficial insights, it is imperative that educational institutions stop cancelling and excluding controversial speakers.

In the spirit of this article, anyone who disagrees with these ideas is encouraged to speak out and join the conversation in class, in the hall, or anywhere else. Students can join school publications to share their opinions with their community.

So, take seat and get uncomfortable. Dialogue and interaction with one another are crucial to preserving and improving our democracy.

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