Columns

Anthony Staehelin ’10: The ‘Brown student’ shows up at the Janus Forum lecture

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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Last Thursday, the Janus Forum hosted a lecture around the question: “Are there universal human rights?” As is usual for Janus Forum lectures, the talk involved two speakers with opposing views. On one side, Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, argued that there are indeed such things as universal human rights and that no matter the context or challenges at hand, these rights are inalienable.

On the other side, John Yoo, Professor of Law at University of California, Berkeley and a legal advisor to the Bush administration, argued that in the world we live in, there are no such things as universal human rights and that, as with most other questions in life, the issue of human rights really boils down to a cost-benefit analysis and there is no such thing as a universal inalienable human right.

I should specify here that this is a gross oversimplification of their arguments. I should also add, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am a co-director of the Janus Forum.

Although the speakers were engaging, the topic was fascinating and the lecture thought- provoking, what personally thrilled me the most was the type of Brown student on display that afternoon.

Much ink has been spilled recently in the columns of The Herald to try and come up with the right definition of the “Brown student.” But the truth is that there is no solitary definition or single mold that can fit the broad range of Brown students.

I couldn’t agree more with columnist Tyler Rosenbaum’s assertion that “on our campus there are liberals, conservatives, libertarians, socialists and everything in between. Nonconformity is appreciated and even encouraged” (The reality of the ‘Brown student,’ Feb. 20). But then how could we, and, more importantly, why would we try to come up with a specific definition that describes all the students of a university that prides itself on diversity? If you ask the 6,000-odd students at our school to define the “Brown student,” you may well get 7,000 different answers.

Unbeknownst to these rival columnists, the debate over who or what a “Brown student” is highlights what may be some of the most defining characteristics of the “Brown student”: an independence of thought and a willingness to engage people with differing views. I firmly believe that this is what is special about Brown University.

Brown students actively engage each other as independent thinkers. Not only do students stand up for their convictions, they are willing to question them as well by confronting one another respectfully and with open minds.

At Brown, we don’t avoid intellectual disagreements or opposing views; on the contrary, we seek them out. President Ruth Simmons put it best when she said, “While other types of communities devise covenants so as to avoid conflict, our covenant is rooted in quarrel, in opposition. We encourage ideas and opinions to collide in the service of learning.”

And I believe that the Brown student, as an independent thinker willing to engage with people that disagree with him or her, showed up last Thursday at the Janus Forum Lecture where people with diverse viewpoints came together and discussed a contentious issue freely and passionately.

Although the lecture did stir up protest outside the event, this was to be expected with a figure as controversial as Yoo. Moreover, the protest was small, was not mainly comprised of Brown students and did not interfere with the event. A much larger demonstration might have been expected from a university considered the most liberal in the Ivy League.

Admirably, Brown students realized that a speaker who holds views uncommon at our school represented more of an opportunity to learn than a threat to their convictions. Rather than physical protest, intellectual dissent was a major part of the night. Brown students epitomizing independence of thought and a willingness to engage in discussion quietly and attentively listened to both speakers before challenging both of them by asking tough questions, seizing upon weak spots in their arguments or even questioning their premises.

Whether it be in the pages of The Herald or at the microphones in a Janus Forum lecture, it is our commitment to engaging each other and defending and questioning our convictions that defines us most.

Anthony Staehelin ’10 is a political science concentrator from Geneva, Switzerland.