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Fischer ’23: Brown must embrace contentious conversations to discourage a persistent culture of self-censorship

If you had to pick the most important component of a healthy relationship, what would it be? For me, the answer is clear: the ability to have honest and difficult conversations. Candid dialogue has the ability to sort right from wrong, to build trust and to encourage learning between partners. 

The same is true on a societal level: A healthy body politic is composed of healthy relationships. We should ask, then, whether people in this country are able to engage in honest conversations about contentious issues. Polling data says no. One poll found that 62% of Americans are afraid to voice their true views out-loud and in public while 32% worry that their political views could harm their employment. The Editorial Board of The New York Times has highlighted these censorious impulses, noting that while only the right has legislated these impulses, “political factions on both the left and the right are insecure enough in their ideas that they’ve tried to muzzle those with whom they disagree.” 

In my experience, these societal trends are especially prevalent on campus, where self-censorship is widespread among students. To address this, the University must commit itself to protecting freedom of speech and expression, thereby encouraging the student body to do the same.

To be clear, this culture is not so much a feature of Brown’s classrooms as it is a mindset of Brown’s students. My professors in religious studies, history and other humanities departments have consistently made it their goal to challenge old ways of thinking and to interrogate new ones, creating an academic culture where heterodox thinking is encouraged. At an institutional level, the University has hosted speakers ranging from former President Bill Clinton to libertarian scholar Ilya Shapiro, officially approved non-partisan civil discourse clubs such as No Labels and Free Inquiry (of which I am the co-president) and supported the creation of the Janus Forum Lecture Series (with topics ranging from gender equity to economic history). All of these have helped students engage with a variety of viewpoints. This is to be applauded. After all, the purpose of education is to teach students how to think, not what to think — to instill wisdom, not ideology. 

Self-censorship at Brown exists perhaps simply due to the fact that the majority of students share the same political views. According to the Brown Opinion Project, 71.8% of students at Brown report being liberal or very liberal. This is not to say that only liberal majorities are troublesome: the student body at a school like Hillsdale College is majority conservative. Both schools risk intellectual nearsightedness, and students may graduate from both institutions ill-prepared to understand the views and arguments of those they disagree with. Students may emerge unprepared for life outside of the university where their neighbors will hold vastly different worldviews from their own. If you’re a conservative, ask yourself: Do I really understand the arguments made by liberals? If you’re a liberal, ask the inverse. To both sides, ask yourselves again: Have I ever really listened to somebody with whom I disagree with the aim of learning more about an issue? Admittedly, conversation does not always lead to greater knowledge of issues, but it can at least encourage an appreciation for another person’s perspective. 

In confronting opinions one finds hateful or viewpoints one finds offensive, there must always be more speech and dialogue. The solution is never to prevent one’s intellectual opponent from voicing their views, but to instead engage them in a civil conversation. How else are we to continue our advancement as a university, as a society and as individual thinkers? Brown University is filled with brilliant, compassionate and nuanced students who are driven by a desire to serve our school and our country with our unique visions. Freedom of expression and speech are necessary prerequisites for this process of the advancement of knowledge, which is central to higher education. The purpose of education is not to make students choose between self-censoring unpopular beliefs or becoming social pariahs. Nor is it to make peers pay lip-service to ideas they disagree with.

The changes we need to make are largely cultural, and as such, implementation depends on the student body. Still, the administration can encourage this shift by formally recognizing the value of the freedom of expression and speech. 

Brown’s administration must adopt the principles of the Chicago Statement, a formal commitment made by the University of Chicago to protect freedom of speech and expression. In adopting this statement, Brown would join over 80 universities and colleges (including Princeton, Columbia, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt). The statement reads in part, “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” The adoption of this statement would reassert Brown’s commitment to the liberal tenets of education and protect the rights of both professors and students as they seek to grow, mature and learn. 

As students, we must similarly commit ourselves to these principles and embrace them in our interactions with friends and peers. We must strive to be generous with those we disagree with, humble in admitting that we may be wrong and respectful of others’ beliefs. These ideals are central to the preservation of a pluralistic society. So, seek out friends with divergent opinions, and sincerely ask them what they think about a salient issue. Attend events of speakers whose views don’t align with your own. Challenge yourself to embrace the discomfort that comes with hearing things that you may not want to hear, in the hope that you’ll learn and grow as a result of it. As our university begins its 259th academic year, let us not forget the spirit of inclusion, tolerance and diversity of thought on which it was founded, and the freedoms on which it was based. 

Sean Fischer ’23 can be reached at sean_fischer@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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