Define your terms: on expressing dissenting political opinions

Quinton Singer

About once or twice a year, an op-ed appears in The Mac Weekly expressing dismay at Macalester’s hypocritically close-minded environment. Last week, Cody Olson authored such a piece, in which he described a time he was unfairly shut down in a classroom discussion because he cited a conservative source. He asked for Macalester students to not dismiss conservative ideas, but instead exhibit respect and tolerance for people with differing views from their own. While I’m not writing a direct rebuttal/response, his piece serves as a launching point for mine, because I see it as situated within a larger context of discussion around liberal arts colleges’ “censorship” and discouragement of “different ideas.”

To preface the rest of this article, I want to say I understand that conservatism is a broad range of political beliefs. Here I choose to focus on political discourse surrounding marginalized groups, because that is often what is challenged or talked around in the types of conversations I am about to critique. I also do not mean to equate conservatism with bigotry, but rather wish to point towards a tendency in conservative politics to perpetuate bigotry and systemic oppression (this is something liberals are not excused from, either).

The problem I have with so many conversations about students, professors, writers, speakers, etc. feeling silenced or censored on college campuses is that no one actually says anything of substance. Writers such as UChicago’s John Ellison, or whatever New York Times op-ed author is featured this week, will point out that college students are supposed to be exposed to ideas that challenge their own views, as this is part of an elite education. They need to learn to treat dissenting views with respect, to listen thoughtfully and to disagree rationally rather than resort to ad hominem attacks. But this argument is so general that I don’t think anyone disagrees completely with it. At face value it means absolutely nothing, because it could mean absolutely anything. It doesn’t tell us which people, which views, which contexts. If we say this is about liberal arts colleges, what classrooms are we talking about? Who are the college students who need to learn to challenge their own ideas? What is meant by “ideas”? Or are we supposed to accept it as a universal truth, regardless of the specifics?

Whatever substance there is in these statements is entirely implicit. I’ve found that when someone says something like the above, they only ever mean that liberal students need to listen to conservative ideas. Often it more specifically means marginalized students need to listen to ideas that perpetuate their marginalization. People use this nebulous language to cover that up and try to seem reasonable, unbiased, etc. But we all understand what the implication is. For instance, when I toured Mac as a PF in 2013, I went to a little event where PFs could ask current students questions about college life. I asked the students if Macalester was truly as open-minded as everyone said it was. The response was, “Oh, God, no! My friend is voting against the gay marriage amendment and feels like she can’t talk about that on campus.” I was expected to find that horrifying. What I had meant in asking was not whether Macalester homophobes felt comfortable being openly homophobic; I wanted to know if people would be open to me being trans and nonbinary. I used the phrase “open-minded” to avoid outing myself to a room full of strangers, which ended up being a good choice since apparently some of them were sympathetic to the plight of homophobes.

I learned then that when someone says Macalester isn’t open-minded, they’re talking around how conservatives and moderates feel silenced. They’re never talking about how students need to learn to respect marginalized people who are directly affected by conservative (and even liberal) desires to maintain the state and its oppressive structures. The demand is always for a shift to the middle/right, and never further left.

When these demands are linked to how there’s some kind of rise in hypersensitivity and how “safe spaces” are destroying free speech on college campus, these writers make it obvious that they consider all ideas intellectually neutral and thus acceptable. Ideas aren’t produced in a vacuum, nor are they expressed in a vacuum. There are a multitude of “ideas” that have directly harmed me and people I know, and which continue to harm huge swaths of people. In ignoring the real consequences of violent ideas, and then demanding that we grant those ideas a platform or else we’re advocating censorship, these writers conflate bigotry with the rejection of bigotry. This is dangerous; suddenly the intolerance a student may have for homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny etc. is the same as the intolerance that (re)produces homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, etc. The New York Times op-ed by author Lionel Shriver illustrates this conflation; she claims that liberals are now “oppressing” neo-Nazis (her example, not mine) by rejecting their ideology. It’s absolutely absurd.

And so I ask for specificity in what is meant by “views,” “ideas,” “perspectives,” “beliefs” and “opinions.” Is this nebulous language intentional, to cover up that the conservative ideas Mr. Olson refers to are in fact homophobic, racist, xenophobic, etc. in nature? If conservatives on campus feel afraid to express, for instance, that they’re anti-LGBT rights, then frankly I think they should feel that way. It’s better they remain silent than express such beliefs in classrooms where LGBT students are just trying to get an education. The Republican party’s platform explicitly includes homophobic, misogynist and racist positions; I cannot consider this neutrally or grant it any ounce of respect. When someone demands for universal respect of all ideas, regardless of political affiliation they are asking me to grant homophobic, transphobic, racist and misogynist views legitimacy and respect. It is a demand I cannot and will not oblige.