Free to Disagree

Olivia+McCaughey+%2716

Olivia McCaughey '16

For as long as they have existed, high school and college campuses have been places where intelligent students contemplate important issues that exist in the world around them. These often controversial topics are brought out for debate, discussion, and protest. In the 1960s, these issues included the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s rights movement, and many others. In each case, students united around a common opinion, organizing marches, rallies, and discussions to help raise awareness about the issues they hoped they could change.

 

John Doar, First Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division in the U.S Justice Department, experienced campus protest and unrest first-hand when he accompanied James Meredith to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Meredith was the first black student ever to attend the University of Mississippi. Riots and chaos resulted in 2 deaths at the University, and many were wounded and arrested.  It was a time of great anxiety and tension at both the University and in the country. But Doar was unwavering in his belief that the way to solve the terrible problem of racial discrimination was through tireless work and non-violent action to convince people to change their stance on the issue.

 

Fast forward 50 years, and school campuses are still places where students discuss controversial issues and work to make important changes in the world around them. Over the past few months, there have been widely publicized school protests over important issues such as controversial articles in student newspapers, culturally insensitive mascots and Halloween costumes, and campus buildings which are named after slave owners and white supremacists.  Some of these cases have been good examples of thoughtful debate and compromise of give-and-take that gets a problem solved, and others have been the opposite; suppressing the ideas of the other side of the issue.

 

On September 14, 2015, an article was published in a school newspaper not unlike this one. The newspaper was published by students of Wesleyan University, a liberal arts school similar to our own, that lies just half an hour down the road and is perched above the Connecticut River, just as we are.

 

This particular op-ed article questioned the Black Lives Matter movement, and author Bryan Stascavage questioned its “potential for positive change”. He suggested that the movement, and more specifically, its radical or “fringe” members, might be facilitating violence toward white police officers.

 

A group of student activists in support of the black lives matter movement responded to the article not with a thoughtful counter in support of their own opinion, but with a petition that demanded the newspaper be boycotted, its funding be cut, and ordered “Theft and destruction of all copies”. It also claimed that the newspaper had “failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body.”

 

Rather than shunning, suppressing and shutting down opposing opinions, a better response from the activists would have been to write another op-ed responding to the article, or to invite the author to speak in an environment where healthy debate and compromise would be possible. Defunding and boycotting the newspaper because it chooses to address unpopular or uncomfortable topics is perhaps the worst possible way to handle this difference of opinion.

 

Our campus is full of students with their own opinions. We’ve all debated things like Red Sox vs. Yankees, Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings, or Coke vs Pepsi. It’s the give and take of ideas and the sharing of our opinions and viewpoints that help bring solutions to problems, or educate peers about another side of a debate, aside from their own. What if Loomis suddenly decided that we would be a strictly Pepsi-drinking community, and claimed that any opinion against Pepsi would be deemed offensive? What if they prohibited the discussion of Coke vs Pepsi, and refused to hear out any Coke-drinkers? This narrow-minded attitude would deprive students of a valuable opportunity to learn to express their beliefs persuasively, and it would lead to an intolerant and insular community. Students in this type of environment would be missing an integral part of their education.

 

In contrast to the situation at Wesleyan, two local public high schools navigated a controversial campus protest situation in an exemplary fashion. In West Hartford, CT, a group of students brought it to the attention of the administration that they took offense to the Native American mascots and symbols used by both high schools. Another group of alumni and townspeople disagreed, and were in favor of keeping the traditional mascots as they were.  Both sides met at public hearings and debated the issue respectfully but persuasively, as ideas and opinions from both sides were aired. After constructive give and take from both sides, a compromise was reached. The two sides decided that the mascot names, the Hall High Warriors and the Conard High Chieftains, would be kept, the images of the feathered Native American heads would be eliminated. Through compromise, conversation, and an open mind toward the opinions of the opposing viewpoint, these schools came to an agreement that was acceptable for everyone.  This kind of compromise, and the progress it results in, is not possible if one side or another is completely shuttered and ignored.

 

Here at LC, we learn how to express ourselves, share our opinions, and listen to and accept the viewpoints and ideas of our peers. We are also quite unique in that we have a wide variety of organizations and clubs that aim to create places where students’ diversity is celebrated. We have an administration that works hard to create a safe atmosphere for healthy give-and-take. If there is an individual or a group who feels that their viewpoint is not adequately represented, in our community, they are free to raise awareness to it, which ought to result in a supportive response from the LC community. We certainly hope that the spirit of healthy debate, sharing of opinions, and the willingness to listen to unpopular ideas, is alive and well in our community and in the world.
So I’ll conclude with this question: What would John Doar think? How would he react to having the principles he used to make great progress during one of the most critical time periods in American history be tarnished by narrow-minded individuals who choose to shut down opposing ideas rather than discuss them? Those who ignore opposing opinions, such as the Wesleyan student government, or Donald Trump, have probably never seen the progress that thoughtful and intelligent debate can make in a community. If they understood the power of healthy debate and compromise, many important issues we face today could likely be solved.