When I was younger, the progressive news outlets Daily Kos and Think Progress used to offend me. I was starting down my path as an avid news junkie, and seeing articles from progressive sources on political discussion forums would send me into an outrage. I saw the manipulation, the twisting of facts and blatant lies, the overt progressive narrative. I thought that these news outlets hurt political discourse by propagating their misinformation and half-truths, and campaigned for the moderators of political forums to ban articles from those websites.
When I sat down and really thought about why I hated those news sources, I discovered that the reason I was offended wasn’t that Daily Kos and Think Progress were twisting information; it was because they were progressive and had their own way of interpreting events. I realized that by admitting that those websites have the right to publish their views, I was legitimizing their political beliefs in my head, beliefs that stood in stark contrast to my own.
Being offended was a defense mechanism that prevented me from ever having to consider progressivism as a valid political theory. I then realized that if I can’t trust my own reasons for being offended, then how could I trust anyone else’s?
This is not to say that there is nothing in this world that is offensive. What I am saying is that I cannot trust an organization or school of thought that is solely concerned with shutting down conversation due to offense. Furthermore, being pushed out of our comfort zone is the only way to break through the protective barriers that our brains put up to defend our belief systems. An unchallenged political viewpoint is not a viewpoint worth having.
A viewpoint that is challenged has two potential outcomes: Either we abandon it, or, in defending it, our belief in it becomes stronger. I came to Wesleyan with the idea that climate change was not a serious concern. Students and classes have enabled me to become a much more environmentally conscious citizen. Conversely, my criticisms of welfare have stood strong, and in discussing and defending them, my understanding of poverty and wealth has been vastly expanded. Neither of these scenarios could have occurred had I not allowed Wesleyan the opportunity to change my mind.
Additionally, the fear of opposing views is causing us to build echo chambers in which everything that we hear we agree with and everyone agrees with what we say. It is a comfort zone, a place where our liberalism or conservatism is protected from attack, where we don’t have to worry about our political opponents making an argument that challenges us.
Once I understood the danger of echo chambers, I wanted to ensure that I would never be in a space where dissenting opinion was banned. In the military, I would push forward liberal viewpoints on health care among my more conservative friends. And at Wesleyan, I am pushing conservative viewpoints on a campus that has degraded into a fairly far-left echo chamber.
It is worth repeating—Wesleyan is an echo chamber—and it has become an aggressive one at that. Last semester I received hundreds of emails from students and alumni telling me that although they may not have agreed with some or all of my article, they were ecstatic that someone on campus was finally injecting a different viewpoint into the conversation. What’s even more disturbing is that many students told me that they feel silenced and oppressed by those who quash any viewpoint that doesn’t fit into Wesleyan’s ultra-liberal spirit.
I do not use the word “oppressed” lightly. This is what students have told me. They are afraid that if they say something that isn’t perfectly aligned with certain viewpoints, those in power will publicly shame them and ostracize them from social events on campus.
Part of the fault from last semester lies with me: I could have better communicated my viewpoints. Part of the fault lies with the students who opposed me: We could have had a much more open-minded dialogue. Furthermore, part of the problem lies with The Argus for not having had a better relationship with the Student of Color community. And, finally, part of the problem lies with the administration and faculty for not actively promoting dissenting opinion on campus.
I challenge everyone at Wesleyan to take a hard look at the spaces in which they spend their time. How often are we having respectful conversations between conservatives and liberals, instead of bantering between the very liberal and the very very liberal? How often do we sit and feel the pain of having to listen to someone who has a viewpoint that is diametrically opposed to ours? How often do we truly listen to each other, instead of immediately jumping to judge, intimidate, and suppress?
We should be inviting conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and socialists onto our campus to speak about their views. If Liberty University, about as conservative a college as it gets, can have the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders on campus and respectfully listen to and discuss his points instead of protesting, we should be able to host figures like Donald Drumpf, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. Yes, most students will vehemently disagree with what they have to say, but I maintain that the result would be an outstanding campus discussion. It would be a more valuable learning experience than anything we can find inside of the classroom.
I know Drumpf is extremely unpopular on campus, and rightfully so. We have heard his comments on Muslims, Latinos, and women. Yet, I feel inviting Drumpf to campus would be the best thing for Wesleyan. It would give him an opportunity to speak directly to us, instead of having us hear his statements stripped of context and filtered by the media. We would hear his reasons for his beliefs and perhaps understand more about why Drumpf has as much support as he currently does. Following his speech, we could have a debriefing to discuss what we have heard. Drumpf is very offensive to many, but being offended should no longer be a valid excuse to not accept him on campus. Instead, the power should come from hearing his views, discussing them, and having a much better understanding of the issues.
I write this article sitting at the Posse Veterans’ retreat on freedom of speech and the power of words on college campuses. I get the sense that there is growing dissatisfaction with the staleness of discourse at Wesleyan. I get the sense that there are hundreds of students who want to have a voice but feel afraid to speak. I get the sense that students are upset that only one viewpoint is being discussed in the classroom.
To the students who use public shaming and social ostracizing to punish students who express dissenting opinions, I ask you this: If your views are so strong, why do you feel the need to silence any criticism? A strong progressive viewpoint should be able to stand up to the most voracious assault.
I ask the same question to the faculty members who only show one side of the argument in their classrooms. Are you afraid that if you share a conservative or moderate viewpoint your own beliefs become invalid? Do you fear they will be scrutinized as being a farce? Are you scared that students will abandon your view and align with the opposing view? Bias in the classroom is fine, but the reluctance to counter-balance that bias with opposing viewpoints shows academic and professional cowardice.
It is time for everyone on campus who wants a voice to stand up and speak their minds. If enough of us do, then it can’t be silenced. I heard a great line at last year’s retreat: “Go to the edge of your comfort zone, and dip your toe into the unknown.” Write a Letter to the Editor, post a bulletin, go to a WSA meeting, and voice your opinion. Don’t cower in the face of intimidation. I faced it and came out stronger on the other side. Together, we can force the campus to engage in constant discussions of dissenting viewpoints. We will break the chokehold that currently exists.
My mission for the next two and a half years is to break down the apparent echo chamber. I hope that more people will join me and other people on campus, such as Argus staff members and the attendees at the Posse Veterans retreat, to ensure that dissenting opinion is encouraged on campus.
Stascavage is a member of the class of 2018.