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Ingber '15: Free speech at Brown?

With all the buzz about the strategic plan, there has been no shortage of discussion surrounding Brown’s mission statement and larger purpose as a university or university-college. And while the debate has often revolved around the centrality of undergraduates to our educational philosophy, I’d like to take a moment to delve into something we sometimes take for granted and in turn ignore at Brown: free speech.

Our mission statement reads, “The mission of Brown University is to serve the community, the nation and the world by discovering, communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry.” There is no doubt that we are a forward-thinking, cutting-edge and intellectually rigorous institution. But during my two years here, I have experienced some extremely frustrating moments when Brown students, and sometimes faculty members, have not fully embodied this spirit of “free inquiry.”

Let’s start with the obvious. It is taboo to be conservative at Brown. The moment you express your uncertainty about the Affordable Care Act or drug legalization, most people in the room immediately dismiss you. If you really, truly care about limited government, you might as well be living in the 19th century. The social ostracism that exists at Brown is harsh, often repugnant and not indicative of an open-minded institution. I am constantly ignored or not taken seriously, even by close friends, when I advocate for strong American leadership on the world stage or express hesitation about government spending. This is wrong, unproductive and simply not fair to conservative students at Brown, a group I believe is larger than most people perceive.

Faiz Khan’s ’15 recent Herald column was spot-on in its assessment of the University’s political climate (“Brown’s double standard of inclusivity,” Oct. 2). There is an unnerving amount of intolerance for certain political perspectives and far too many unwarranted personal attacks of those brave enough to say what they believe. I’ve lived this. I have received numerous borderline hateful emails from people responding to my columns. Whether I am accused of echoing Ayn Rand or not being aware of my white privilege — a discussion I will leave for another column — personal jabs are often the reason many do not participate in the political conversation at Brown. And if, for example, conservatives are automatically labeled as racist and classist, as they often are by Brown students, then the campus dialogue misses out on important voices.

The same one-sided culture also surrounds religion at Brown. For some bizarre reason, organized religion is considered anti-intellectual and incompatible with the ideals of a progressive Brown student. Religious individuals are considered to be uninterested in reality and victims of blind-faith and institutional dogma. This is extremely frustrating for me as a fairly religious person who realizes that much of religion is centered on rigorous intellectual stimulation and a deep tradition of questioning.

People are often afraid to admit they are religious because of the stigma attached to organized religious communities. This is bad for free speech at Brown because it both discourages certain students from speaking and overlooks the massive role religion plays in politics and culture.

And sometimes this “crowding out” effect moves beyond lack of engagement and ostracism. There have been horrifying instances of censorship, or attempted censorship, carried out by Brown students. Nothing typifies this idea more than the panel The Herald and the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions put together to discuss the then-impending same-sex marriage vote in the Rhode Island legislature. The organizations, doing what every respectable academic center or objective news institution should do, assembled a panel with opposing viewpoints which included a representative from the National Organization for Marriage, one of the United States’ preeminent advocacy groups for traditional marriage. The outrage from students was incredibly immature and inexcusable, with many students — who claim to be open-minded and liberal — advocating to remove the individual from the panel. One student, who thought he was so clever, even inquired as to the amount of the speaker’s honorarium so he could ask the University to deduct that amount from his tuition.

How can we have a legitimate, thorough discussion about an incredibly complex topic, let alone an honest debate about public policy, without allowing opposing viewpoints to be expressed? We have a responsibility not only to allow unpopular viewpoints to be articulated but also to engage with them in a meaningful way without immediately writing them off. Taubman smartly responded to the hoopla by suggesting that those upset could attend the panel and ask tough questions. I have no problem with people thinking the National Organization for Marriage is wrong or even bigoted. What I do have a problem with is those same people privileging their own opinions to the end of censoring opposing ones.

Some of this unbalance often trickles down from Brown’s faculty. While I am more than pleased that the University held a teach-in to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria, I am disappointed there was not a strong voice advocating for U.S. military intervention. This is not a fringe policy position. In fact, the president, secretary of defense, secretary of state and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have all supported U.S. military action in Syria. Likewise, a recent talk on the Oslo Accords by Hanan Ashrawi, an accomplished Palestinian diplomat, should have been accompanied by an Israeli diplomat of equal stature. Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely happy that Brown engages with difficult issues — but propagating a limited scope of political views entrenches certain narratives and could potentially discourage dissenters from exercising their right to free speech.

With that said, I have had positive experiences at Brown, and I hope that those can be replicated. In POLS 1010: “Topics in American Constitutional Law” last spring, Professor of Political Science Corey Brettschneider encouraged students to share conservative views in addition to liberal ones. He was nothing but reassuring to students who articulated seemingly controversial viewpoints in a respectful, intelligent manner.

We should follow the lead of the Herald opinions columnists who have never shied away from controversial columns or the Janus Forum, which makes a point of bringing divergent views to the same podium.

And here is why this all matters. While there might be a miniscule but important conservative voice at Brown, there are some pretty darn smart conservatives out there in the real world, and Brunonians need to know how to engage them. Last summer, I was a summer fellow at the American Enterprise Institute — cue eye roll now — and worked with some of the smartest people I have ever met. I interacted with the architect of the Iraq surge plan, defense policy experts with decades of experience and economists who have advised various presidents. But some of my more liberal peers participating in the fellowship had a difficult time engaging because they had not encountered these views on their campuses.

Not to get all philosophical, but John Stuart Mill argues that one of the chief arguments against censorship suggests that all viewpoints need to be heard because everyone should know how to respond to opposing opinions. This could not be more true for Brown students. To the conservatives at Brown, I say, come out of hiding and into the political discussion. I’ll be right there with you. And to the liberals, I say, make sure you embody perhaps the most fundamental liberal value captured by Brown’s mission statement: “free inquiry.”

 

Zach Ingber ’15 would love to listen to your opinion unless you disagree with him. He can be reached at zachary_ingber@brown.edu.



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