Columns, Opinions

Thomas ’21: Deriving meaning from different perspectives

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, April 15, 2018

In recent weeks, ideological diversity has become a major topic of discussion on campus. The Herald has certainly facilitated this larger discussion, publishing a wide range of op-eds about free speech, the SPEAK coalition and Jeb Bush’s upcoming lecture. These articles all touch on the idea of ideological diversity and the purpose of bringing speakers to campus who may not necessarily align with student opinion. In reading my peers’ thoughts, I have ultimately found myself wondering: What kind of opinions are productive and worthwhile to a scholarly community like Brown? To be clear, I’m not making an argument for or against inviting Bush to speak at Brown; this particular case has already been heavily discussed. I am, however, seeking to raise the broader question of how a scholarly community should go about identifying what kinds of opinions and debates it should host.

Ideological diversity is important, yes. And by listening to differing viewpoints, we can start to make progress. But we must also be cognizant of what kinds of differing opinions foster productive discourse and what kinds simply run on hate and marginalize vulnerable populations. Inviting speakers to campus for the sole purpose of diversifying thought is not enough. We must go through the more laborious task of thinking about how a different perspective may prove productive and what value can come from bringing a new view into our academic community.

As Rebecca Aman ’20 noted in an April 13 column entitled “What constitutes acceptable discourse?”, we should first consider the educational value of the speakers the University invites to campus. These speakers must have clearly defined, relevant approaches to policy, social issues and politics. And the ideas presented by those coming to campus in the name of ideological diversity need not be a perfect reflection of the University’s or student body’s values. This discord is actually productive: We can derive educational value from the people we disagree with. Encountering different perspectives is a great learning opportunity, and since we live in an academic community, it is important for us to maximize opportunities to understand unfamiliar points of view and think critically. Being able to look at the world through different lenses enriches our education as students.

But what speakers can teach us is only half of the equation. We must also consider the discursive, applied value of speakers — their capacity to provoke thought, stimulate important conversations and provide students with opportunities to engage with the content of their speech through campus discourse. We’ve had the privilege of hearing from amazing people this past year, and what makes these people so amazing is, in part, their ability to make audiences think critically and engage with one another on various topics. When Cornel West came to campus last month, for example, his words were powerful in their own right. But, for me, the value of his words also came from the sustained discussions of everything he said that I had with my friends in the Ivy Room that evening, and even this past week at the bookstore coffee shop. The staying power of West’s talk — and how long speakers’ ideas endure in the work that we do as students — might serve as a fruitful measure for what speakers from various fields and backgrounds can be expected to contribute with their presence on campus. Students should be able to take what they’ve learned from any given talk and turn it into something meaningful for themselves.

While coming up with expectations for the kinds of voices we invite to campus and measuring the educational and discursive value of speakers might seem straightforward, to think about what views might not be of use on campus is more difficult. There’s a lot of gray area when it comes to trying to identify what ideas are acceptable and unacceptable. On one level, speakers ought to meet the criteria of the funds and lectures that sponsor their invitation. As a practical matter, whether or not Bush, a former governor of Florida who lacks any foreign policy experience, can carry out the purpose of the Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs is up for debate. In separate articles published in The Herald opinions section, Michael Froid ’21 argued that the decision to award Bush “a prestigious lecture” in international affairs makes little sense given his inexperience, while Mark Liang ’19 called Froid’s criticism “partisan,” noting that “Having direct experience in the State Department or equivalent is obviously not a requisite” to give the Ogden Memorial lecture.

Qualifications aside, however, there remains the larger tension around whether or not Bush provides any substantive value to our community. While Bush might meet some of the audience’s standards for making a valuable contribution to our campus, for others, inviting him to speak is reprehensible, and his views fall outside of what they see as useful — or even safe — for students. In a lot of cases, it is hard to determine if a speaker’s views harm students and deserve to be excluded from campus, or if they constitute a meaningful learning opportunity that should be sought out. 

The question of who should get the final say in deeming an opinion or way of thinking productive is nearly impossible to answer. But it is because this question is so difficult to answer that it is crucial that we think long and hard about the value that guest speakers — and differing views in broader forms, like the composition of faculty — provide to our community. Aman started this process, and I’ve tried to advance it here, though by no means is my set of expectations perfect. Going forward, we, as a community, must be willing to intentionally, collectively and conscientiously think about guest speakers, guest lecturers and their effect on campus discourse and our education. Just because this task is difficult and far from clear-cut does not mean it should not be taken up. In fact, it is because it is so difficult — and so worthwhile for the University and for our education — that we must embrace this challenge.

Quentin Thomas ’21 can be reached at quentin_thomas@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.