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Spencer-Salmon '14: Defending the right to disagree


A few weeks ago I strolled out of the venerable Sharpe Refectory and was enthusiastically greeted by free hot chocolate being offered by a group of out-of-state students. As I delightedly helped myself to the aforementioned beverage, they asked me if I wanted to know anything more about the Bible.

I'm sure my smile slipped a bit. I explained that I did not share this interest and that I felt uncomfortable taking their hot chocolate as a result. They very kindly explained that it was fine - they were just "feeling out" the atmosphere at Brown regarding religion. They told me that so far, they'd felt pretty welcome.

This was encouraging, and I told them so, but as I said goodbye I couldn't help but think with some discomfort of the anti-gay marriage protest last year. For those who missed it, a Catholic group called the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property held a rally on Brown's campus last March championing banners bearing slogans like "God's Marriage = 1 Man & 1 Woman." Adorned with bagpipes and kilts, they distributed flyers that outlined God's disapproval of homosexuality.

Needless to say, the student population was not enamored. In fact, we quickly mobilized a counter-rally to defend and proclaim our LGBTQ-friendly beliefs, which I happen to share wholeheartedly.

But a number of us vandalized the group's signs, verbally abused their members and generally fulfilled the stereotypes you'd associate with an angry mob. Moreover, judging from memory and the approving language of The Herald coverage ("Students rally against anti-gay marriage demonstrators," March 24, 2011), most of us shared the opinion that the demonstrators did not deserve to be heard on account of the hatefulness of their message. Tragically, this intolerant attitude - ignorant of the fact that the group probably chose our campus precisely because of our predictable outrage - is as oppressive as any hate-peddling group out there.

This happened a year ago, and yes, we have a lot of wonderful, open-thinking happening on this campus. I'm proud of our frequent sex-positive events and LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere, for instance. But alarmingly often, both on the wide scale and in personal interactions, we exhibit the same intolerance as the oppressive groups we oppose, effectively defeating the purpose of calling ourselves progressive thinkers. I once made the mistake of joking about praying on the Lord's Day to a new group of Brown acquaintances. The whole group proceeded to look at once outraged and disgusted. Alarmed, I hurriedly assured them of my nonchalant collegiate agnosticism, which so many of us seem to ascribe to, thus righting the delicate order of the universe - or at least one casual hangout situation.

These are anecdotes, but I've experienced these situations enough to consider this type of "progressive" intolerance to be a real phenomenon on this campus. Admittedly, in the case of religion, I am not well-informed about most belief systems. Most of my friends aren't either, and that may be part of the problem, but there are plenty of reasons to be wary of the effects religion - especially in its extreme manifestations - can have on society.

But that's not the point. The point is that if we're really to be open and accepting of everyone, we've kind of got to be accepting of everyone across religions or lack thereof - races, classes, genders, insert demographic of your choosing and so on. Looking around at the student body, certain stereotypes about our liberal ideologies might appear to be the whole truth, but it's still a campus, and a world, which hosts all kinds of people. It's not really tolerance if we all agree, is it?

I challenge my fellow students - and myself - as incredibly fortunate human beings, to avoid fighting intolerance with more intolerance. We cannot congratulate ourselves on taking the moral high ground if this is not actually the case. If we believe ourselves to be right about, say, equal rights, then the force of our correct opinion - and our excellent elaboration of it - should be a forceful enough way of driving home the point and overcoming the things we'd rather not see in the world.



Camille Spencer-Salmon '14 enjoys being disagreeable almost as much as being agreeable.



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