Columns

Mitra ’18: Thinking out loud on campus

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, April 20, 2015

It has been almost 2,000 years since the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D. Yet when people wander through the rubble of the city, they can still come across ancient carvings etched onto its walls — age-old graffiti that has withstood the test of time. These markings have survived volcanic eruptions, archaeological digs and legions of disruptive tourists. They include love notes, poetry and, most significantly, comments and criticism about the city itself. It is a testament to the durability of opinions and the mediums in which they are transposed. Even after two millennia, the citizens of Pompeii are making their voices heard.

The power of opinion is unparalleled, especially in today’s world. Of course, freedom of opinion is a basic human right, but it encompasses more than just liberty. Strong commentary is a driving force of progress, bringing attention to unrecognized issues and providing a platform for change. It is not enough simply to allow opinions to be shared. To be worthwhile, they need to be engaged with, respected and challenged in equal measure — which is why I am growing increasingly concerned with the backlash against controversial opinions at Brown.

As an opinions columnist for The Herald, I enjoy expressing my thoughts on current events and student life. The Herald’s commentary pages are a wonderful forum to share ideas with the wider Brown community and bring together different groups of people. And while Herald commentary is often thought-provoking and insightful, I still believe there is a dearth of constructive response and inclusivity on campus.

In putting forth this viewpoint, I am not mindlessly critiquing our campus culture. Rather, I speak from personal experience. Two months ago, I wrote my first column for The Herald. Sad though it may sound, I remember being wildly excited to see my name in print. Unfortunately, that excitement was marred by the fact that I was simultaneously terrified of potential backlash. My column was about fostering religious pluralism on campus — an admirable goal — but I feared insults and abuse among the comments.

My fear was not irrational or unprecedented. Shielded by anonymity, commenters have often resorted to vulgar, misogynistic insults and even emailed threats. In response, many columnists have written about comment etiquette and the importance of basic respect, citing repeated abuse at the hands of unnamed readers. And just one week before my first column, one of my fellow columnists wrote a divisive piece about ROTC at Brown. His column earned him near-instant notoriety, with numerous letters to the editor and guest columns on the subject. It gained attention from Fox News, which turned his contentious argument into a topic of national debate. Though some of the comments on his article were intelligent and valid, many more were offensive ad hominem attacks. Could I be blamed for wanting to avoid the same fate?

Perhaps columnists like me should develop thicker skin: After all, opinion pieces are supposed to generate debate and disagreement. But I take issue with the fact that many comments are personal attacks rather than constructive critiques. More importantly, powerful commentary is important for reflection and development. Students should not have to feel scared about sharing their thoughts. A conformist atmosphere will only stifle productive discussion and crush voices that need to be heard, and that doesn’t sound very tolerant to me.

If we intend to tackle tough questions and truly get to the heart of the matter, we as a community need to foster stronger discussion. And whether we like it or not, that will involve embracing a variety of different — and sometimes directly opposing — perspectives. This doesn’t mean that students should be provocative for provocation’s sake. But if someone has a particularly divisive perspective, their ideas should not be drowned out in a sea of unnecessary hate. Disagreement is much more powerful when it remains respectful.

So, to all of those who delight in making rude or offensive comments anonymously, I would encourage you to instead spend a few extra minutes writing an email to the writer, letter to the editor or even a response column in The Herald. Make your voices heard, and engage the community in important discussion. And if you simply want to jot down your immediate thoughts, go right ahead and post a comment. Just remember that your vitriol against an argument should not be directed at the writers themselves.

In ancient Pompeii, people used paint and chisels to share their thoughts. Two thousand years later, new platforms have emerged: We have op-eds and blog posts that streamline communication and make opinions more accessible and meaningful. But the ease and anonymity of the Internet should not encourage, abuse or limit critical discussion.

I’d love for conversation at Brown to be a fraction as meaningful and heartfelt as Pompeii’s simple street art. And for that to happen, we need to put aside the ad hominem attacks and keep the conversation civil. We need to challenge ourselves to challenge others.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Update 6/2

    In related news:

    Yesterday the SCOTUS opinion in ELONIS v. UNITED STATES makes clear that prosecution for speech requires proving at least some clear mens rea [intent to cause physical harm] on the part of the speaker to communicate an actual threat, and not just the impression of a threat on the part of listeners: being offended or scared is explicitly not legal injury.

    The legal basis for the university empowering feminist ‘star chambers’ and/or cultural directors to say, “You don’t tell me what is punishable…I tell you what is punishable…submit or be expelled.” just took a torpedo below the waterline. University lawyers hardest hit. University accountants may well start requiring a reserve fund for likely successful future lawsuits.

    As always, I invite discussion 🙂