EDITORIAL: Engage different opinions in productive discourse
On Wednesday, an email from Student Union president David Herbstritt announced the impending creation of a task force to examine free speech at the University.
The new task force’s primary focus will be freedom of speech in an academic context. This board applauds the efforts to rigorously study the University’s current culture around free speech, especially how aggressive responses to unpopular views can discourage students from expressing those views at all.
A University task force actively researching this problem will hopefully lead to clearer data on the extent and manner of free speech suppression at Brandeis. Without this data, it is difficult to comment thoroughly on the issue, but that does not mean the topic does not warrant discussion.
Outside institutions have noted a freedom of speech problem at Brandeis. The Heterodox Academy Guide to Colleges, a group of professors from a wide range of higher education institutions, examined the top 150 universities as determined by U.S. News and World Report and, using information from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, rated them based on their viewpoint diversity. The report seeks to examine whether university atmospheres are conducive to free speech or whether dissenting opinions are repressed in favor of a more homogeneous culture. Brandeis is ranked 142 on this list with a score of 12.5 out of 100. This is a large difference from the school ranked first, the University of Chicago, which has a score of 93.75.
The Heterodox Academy has ample evidence on the public record for their rating. From the disinvitation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Daniel Mael’s TruthRevolt article, a string of high-profile incidents have called Brandeis’ commitment to freedom of speech into question over the past few years.
More significant to current students, debate over freedom of speech often cites trigger warnings and safe spaces as threats to such freedom. This board flatly rejects the notion that these two concepts are threats whatsoever in the University environment.
Trigger warnings pose absolutely no threat to freedom of speech on campuses — rather, they simply provide an announcement for students about content that will appear in upcoming academic lectures. To most students, this warning is a non-event and doesn’t hurt them or their ability to question the content in any way.
To students who have endured severe trauma, these warnings allow them crucial time to mentally prepare themselves. This preparation allows them to engage with the material without psychological harm, and in rare cases where a student decides to actually leave the room, nothing prevents them from debating or listening to debate over the content after the fact.
Professors are not mandated to provide trigger warnings, but those who choose to do so in no way betray their duty to facilitate a free expression of ideas nor permit students to avoid talking about something they dislike.
Although safe spaces represent a trickier territory, in this board’s opinion, much of the debate on safe spaces comes down to differing definitions of what precisely a safe space is. Rarely do leaders who declare a given conversation to be in a “safe space” clearly explain precisely what their “safe space” means. Are students prohibited from expressing dissent or merely prohibited from attacking one another personally? Miscommunications occur because the two definitions are often conflated. We hope that the new task force will gather clear data about what most students mean by the term and, more importantly, what versions of a “safe space” prove most effective to facilitating a free debate without causing psychological distress.
Yet both of these buzzwords evade the realities of how your average Brandeis student experiences free speech suppression day-to-day. The biggest threat, in this board’s view, is an inability to separate a person from their opinions — and the resulting personal attacks.
Speech at Brandeis is not as free as it could — or should — be. Social pressure, particularly from fellow students, restricts others’ speech — especially by discouraging them from voicing unpopular opinions.
Speaking out in support of one’s opinions is healthy for discourse on a topic, but often, people become so adamant about their own views that they pressure others to remain silent. At Brandeis especially, discussions about most issues can become heated in a matter of seconds. When taken to social media, these heated discussions become so impassioned that they can make students feel unwelcome or even unsafe. This board encourages University students to not only speak but also listen.
It can be difficult to listen to opinions that offend or discomfort you, but a levelheaded back-and-forth dialogue on issues is essential to resolving disagreements.
Brandeis’ small size can make students with unpopular opinions feel alienated, which completely contradicts the University’s goal to foster an open, welcome community. This board urges the student body to avoid contributing to that alienation and to recognize that disagreeing with someone does not justify forgetting that they are a person and therefore worthy of respect.