Backlash against conservative speaker Ann Coulter’s planned visit to the University of California, Berkeley later this month demonstrates that in today’s contentious political climate, the ability to freely discuss concepts and ideas without fear of reprisal from others is waning.
People, especially college students, tend to hide behind condemnations of unknown or feared concepts as “-isms.” Allegations of racism, progressivism, imperialism, sexism, traditionalism and other -isms are common in contemporary discourse, especially online and on campus.
However, not everyone is content with this state of affairs. A pair of students at Harvard College recently launched a club called the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative with the goal of bringing people with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints from all over the political spectrum to speak on campus. Some on both sides of the political divide may see this as an avenue for harmful ideas to spread, while others may more fairly see this as a triumph of civility in an era of contestation. Indeed, the Open Campus Initiative ought to be universally lauded rather than condemned.
It is not always appropriate for an individual to say something provocative and then hurriedly cling to their First Amendment rights as some sort of fleeting protection against reasoned and pointed counterargument — looking at you, internet trolls.
That isn’t what this argument is about. Very few people fear that the First Amendment is going away anytime soon. Discourse is not challenging the legal right to freedom of speech; instead, it is challenging the socially acceptability of dissent from popular beliefs. Organizations like the Open Campus Initiative exist in order to provide for respectful, civil discussion of ideas — even controversial ones — with all of the legitimacy and propriety that comes with an organized forum. It is not really a “safe space” in the commonly accepted sense; it is instead something more similar to an interest-oriented club. Except, in this case, the interest in mind is, in fact, the mind itself.
The fact that the Open Campus Initiative has experienced protests at its events and has generated mild backlash is a testament to the fact that many students may prefer to get angry at proponents of different ideas instead of engaging with these ideas and entering into an intellectual debate. This attitude is precisely what the Open Campus Initiative is designed to reveal and to resist. It is far too easy to be dragged into self-affirmative bubbles and to seek safety rather than intellectual rigor. The Open Campus Initiative allows students at Harvard to have a space to challenge that tendency, and colleges around the nation should follow suit.
Even if students disagree with one or multiple speakers who are brought to a college campus, the presence of such figures is an asset, not — as many believe — a liability. These individuals, who often represent an ideology or school of thought, are commonly well-versed in civil discussion and respectful debate. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalization. However, the students who attend speeches by these individuals should not cast the first stone. They should instead endeavor to first understand the positions being related to them, then analyze them and finally critique them openly and respectfully. Hiding behind half-supported accusations is an asinine way of dealing with dissent, and one that heralds back to the era of the Red Scare, when vaguely different ideologies were dismissed by sweeping accusations and resulted in harsh legal retribution.
This critique, like the Open Campus Initiative’s mission, applies to people on the right and the left alike. There is only experience and knowledge to be gained through inviting dialogue, and the quicker that students understand this, the better they will be prepared to deal with the very real fact that the world outside school is not always as accommodating of their beliefs as they may like.
Trevor Kehrer is a senior majoring in political science. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.