Though we are at the beginning of a new year, the future of the political landscape in North America and Europe has thus far been uncertain and even gloomy to some. This has been felt acutely on university campuses across the U.S., UK and Canada. The politically charged atmosphere of events such as Brexit and the American election has led professors, student groups and activists to publicly express their political opinions about these various issues. However, there is a concern among some groups that this partisanship does not adequately reflect the full ideological spectrum present on university campuses. They claim that their campus environment has bred a hostile atmosphere towards views critical of the majority, and that there are very few outlets to publicly express their ideas without ridicule or condemna-tion.
There has been a growing movement in the U.S. and UK – though the trend has been gaining appeal here as well – to ban speakers that possess objec-tionable, and sometimes offensive view points. From a left wing perspective, it appears logical that in the name of protecting vulnerable groups, you must prevent ignorance from receiving a platform to stand upon and spread. Yet the right wing groups often differ not as much on the problem, as on the principle. Many liberals believe in the principle of persuasion of arguments – that if a speaker’s views are harmful or incompatible with reality, they must be persuaded of the faulty reasoning in their ideologies, or their ignorance will otherwise spread to those who will not seek to challenge them. Some of the worry here stems from a discouragement of critical thought and debate about alternative viewpoints that often possess legitimate concerns. The danger of extreme partisanship is that students who possess a certain ideology will assume, in the absence of debate, that their ideology is the sole manner by which various social and economic issues can be solved, consequently ridiculing any alternative viewpoints as backwards or regressive.
One of the most prominent examples of this was the media’s treatment of the U.S. election, in which supporters of Trump, though in retrospect often misinformed, held legitimate concerns about globalization, as well as their financial and national security. Unfortunately, the stigma around not supporting Hillary Clinton had grown to such an extent that at one American university, when some students had written in chalk “Trump 2016” as a prank, it created a minor crisis among the student body. Furthermore, the effort to silence certain political views had distorted every major media outlet to predict a Clinton victory, and shocked most of the world when it was revealed that Trump had won.
It appears moot to repeat how the same occurred with Brexit, and how the debate was largely one-sided and condescending towards the opposition. However, the conversation must be had. The festering of unchallenged ideas, especially by radicals, will ultimately do more harm than good for the majority of people whom possess neither violent nor radical tendencies. The rise of the alt-right is a testament to the suppression of that debate. Simply put, the movement could not have grown as quickly had it not been a largely underground movement suppressed and unchallenged by the intellectual elite, exploding once it got a foothold in the political mainstream.
From a moderate standpoint, this should be very frightening. To have politics reduced from rigorous debates between multiple opposing groups to find a compromise that benefits the majority, to attacks on the size of politicians’ hands, and the absence of debate altogether in some circles, is incredibly worrying. To have every single poll predict one result and have the actual result be the complete opposite isn’t just mistaken polls, it is a signal of a clear disconnect between two very different groups of society.
On university campuses, however, this dangerous disconnect of ideologies is attempting to be bridged once again. At Notre Dame University, student Sean Long created a club called bridgeND, envisioned as “a safe, neutral place where students could explore their ideological differences in an atmosphere of curiosity.” Open to all voices, Long seeks to move beyond the petty, immobilizing debates that plague partisan division, and translate the group’s ideas into meaningful action. As an American Republican put it, “it makes more sense to wrestle with [our country’s] problems than with each other.” Though difficult, this is an obvious ideal for all of us. The ability to find common ground in a civilized debate is ideal, but first we must rise above the gridlock of partisan division, and seek a foothold that is agreed upon by all. Although it seems counterintuitive to unite with our ideological “enemies,” the practical repercussions of not cooperating at all has led many to realize that it is not—as Thomas Hobbes would put it, “a war of all against all,” but rather the most efficient way of solving the same problem.
The left and right wings, for instance, approach an issue such as illegal immigration, differently, yet silencing each others views on this issue simply leaves both unchallenged, and ultimately people will suffer. If the debate were to be had in a rational, open manner, it appears less likely that extreme measures would be accepted, and more likely that the severity of the issue would be diminished for all. Such is the way of politics. Though there is a terrifying, justified fear of the legitimization of violence and hateful attitudes, such as those espoused currently in the hate-mongering regimes of the Philippines, Myanmar, and most notably, the United States’ new administration, all views that do not promote violence, including views that may be radical or ignorant, must be allowed to be challenged and debated vigorously. That is the way a university, and by extension a society, will progress.
Vigorous debate does not occur through petitions to ban speakers; ideas cannot be challenged properly if all you do is shout at your opposition. Rather, ideas are challenged through the use of rhetoric and reason. If you truly seek to convince your opposition that your views are correct, you must challenge them. You must see their views, understand why they possess them, and fight them. Otherwise, you may have prevented bigots from speaking at your school, but schools are not the only forums for them to present their views. You may have silenced bigots, but you have not challenged them, and you haven’t been challenged either. You may have convinced your peers, but not the majority, and it is they who matter the most.
Image courtesy of Sabine Osmann-Deyman.