I remember how afraid I was to speak up my first semester at Bates. I knew what Aristotle’s artistic proofs were. I did my First-Year Seminar reading and had some thoughts on Thomas More. And maybe I was a French novice, but I could definitely conjugate avoir in the present tense. Still, I was overcome with fear at the thought of saying something wrong or unintelligent and suddenly being the village idiot—irrational thinking, I know, but nevertheless, my first semester at Bates passed by in quiet obscurity, as I shied away from thoughtful discussion about topics of which I remained ignorant.
Engagement and discussion, in and out of the classroom, is something the Bates community prides itself on. As declared in the College’s mission statement, “we engage the transformative power of our differences, cultivating intellectual discovery and informed civic action.” Key words (for the purpose of this article at least) are “differences,” “discovery” and “informed.” Refusing to interact and learn about something that scares or challenges you on this campus is in complete contradiction with that which the College strives to encourage.
In a recent Boston Globe article, columnist Ty Burr responded to Duke freshman Brian Grasso’s objection to the university’s required summer reading. The student defended his decision, saying the graphic novel’s pornographic images conflicted with his Christian beliefs.
Like Burr points out, one can’t challenge Grasso’s religious beliefs. Rather, Burr calls attention to the broader issue at play: college students, so often progressive leaders and radical thinkers, are developing a case of tunnel vision in which they block out any idea or concept that could challenge the ideals they cling to so fervently.
“Ideas can be dangerous and upsetting and threatening, and there is no better place to learn how to deal with them than high school and college,” Burr wrote. “To engage with something that may offend you is to gain power over it; to refuse to engage leaves you powerless.”
It’s important to have beliefs and ideals, whether they be religious or political or of another nature. When these ideals become so powerful that any other reasoning is written off as blasphemous, crazy, stupid or wrong, this leaves us with a problem.
Consider political correctness. As Burr acknowledges, it often comes from a place of compassion. Discrimination is still an incredibly serious and pertinent issue, not just on college campuses. It comes in many forms—a blatant, offensive act, a verbal slur, or one of the many ugly faces that micro-aggressions can take. Maintaining a safe space on any college campus is vital. We should respect others regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or socioeconomic background.
But when you are so afraid of saying something offensive, the result is silence, which can be deadly. And then there is the other end of the spectrum—those who refuse to acknowledge the issues at hand and who shun any attempt to convince them otherwise. This leads people to avoid the subject altogether. Nothing will ever change if no one is willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
We often take for granted the community that has been built here. For four years of your life you get to live and work with some of the brightest minds around, people who will change the way you think and see the world and make you aware of things you never knew existed. But if we are resistant to this change—to any sort of challenge to our ideals—the college experience can be incredibly limiting.
So with the start of the new year, I leave you with this: “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world … would do this, it would change the earth.”
William Faulkner, you have a way with words, but I have some additions. Have the courage to speak up, while always remembering to listen. Embrace challenges on this campus. Ask questions and always be open to educating those who want answers. Take a film class in the Rhetoric department—I promise that you won’t watch movies the same way again. Go to a J Street U or Students for Justice and Peace in Palestine meeting. Take a women and gender studies course. If you are amongst the majority on this liberal campus, still consider differing views. This is the time to dive right in and take advantage of the “emancipating potential of the liberal arts”—to participate and to engage with an open mind.