On Thursday, January 25th, a small crowd of apprehensive students and faculty filed into College Hall on a dark, brisk evening for the slated 7 p.m. match. The fixated crowd was attentive and behaved—obligatory knee slaps, table-pounding and hisses notwithstanding—as the Penn Political Union held its quasi-monthly “parliamentary-style debate” deliberating the resolution, “The political atmosphere at Penn and other similar institutions is hostile to the free exchange of ideas.”
The speech club debating speech? What could be more meta? What could be more redundant?
As it turns out, the PPU had a few unexpected treats in store for its captivated audience members. They nervously nibbled their veggie-heavy, complimentary Mediterranean refreshments as representatives from caucuses on the Left and Right picked apart the resolution expertly, divining new definitions of hostility and exchange of free ideas every time a new debater rose to speak. (PPU might want to remember to stipulate important definitions in the future. Otherwise, speakers tend to move the goalposts.)
My feathers may have been ruffled by the abuse of vocabulary, but yet another surprise was to come. Within 90 minutes of opening arguments the “Proposition” team had posted an upset victory. Now we know Penn’s campus is hostile, which is only about as fun as spilled milk and must take longer to clean up.
More incredible yet, the winning underdogs were overwhelmingly supported by right-wingers from the Conservative and Libertarian Caucuses, with a split vote among the Centrists and the left-leaning Liberal and Progressive Caucuses. All in all, 15 votes to 12 votes, Penn’s campus is hostile to the free exchange of ideas. Now we know. Now it’s been proven by spirited debate and by majority democracy. And now we’re bummed.
However, all is not lost. As libertarian speaker Austin Petersen pointed out when he gave a talk at Amado Recital Hall just one day prior to PPU’s debate, the University of Pennsylvania is a private school with private property and private contracts. When it decides to make TAs stop teaching, restrict professors’ public personas, or otherwise restrict content to favor particular speech, Penn is perfectly within its rights as a non-governmental entity.
Similarly, students are not marching around campus with Antifa flags, bashing in the heads of those with whom they disagree. It is obvious, then, that if our campus is hostile to the free exchange of ideas, then this environment is created by neither authoritarian nor violent means. Instead, the subtext of social and academic interactions rewards self-censorship rather than diversity of thought.
To be certain, our campus does have a problem. It’s a problem among associates, passersby, and classmates who see each other as obstacles in competition and as objects for personal gain, rather than fellow, potentially enlightened humans. Students act in this callous way in pursuit of personal gain.
It’s common sense, or it ought to be. Being a bad person tends to wreak unnecessary misery on yourself and everyone who surrounds you.
This is obviously bad news for all of us who have behaved with hostility towards self-expression and exchange of ideas. We have spit in the face of honesty and turned our backs on truth-seeking for the sake of wallowing in laziness and feeling a sense of superiority. (“Productive conversation is hard. Besides, I will not be seen befriending those people…”) We don’t look each other in the eyes; we address other humans with cold disregard and assume they are evil; we send signals both subtle and overt, encouraging self-censorship rather than stoking the flourishing expression of our neighbors’ thoughts.
Did I mention this is bad news?
The great news is—since it’s all your fault, all my fault, all our fault—that the power is in our hands to start saving free expression and truth-seeking here on campus. If we do it right, it will spread to other campuses like ours. And that would make all the difference.
You can be a part of the solution. Make amends, repent, and help bring peace, camaraderie, and collegiality to full strength on Penn’s campus. Make Penn, dare I say it, greater than ever before.
- Breed compassion, not contempt.
I know what some readers may be thinking. “I do not tolerate intolerance, so I do not tolerate intolerant people.” Besides the oxymoron, I want to show these readers an opportunity here. If people have views you believe to be wrong, talk about it. Find out what they really think, and if it is so wrong, convince them that your belief is valid too.
In short, act like a human being. It’s called being polite. Take someone you don’t always agree with out for coffee and chat about your ideas and how you think and feel. (Starbucks scares you? Bring a buddy. Friendless hermit? Heck, use PennWalk and don’t let the guy leave till several coffees have joined the Empty Cup Club.) Yes, it’s clichè. Yes, it’s awkward, at least at first. And yes, you will be saving the world one grande cappuccino at a time.
And listen closely. Try to convince yourself of your interlocutor’s mindset. It’s okay: you aren’t in danger of being brainwashed. Instead, by learning the ins and outs of your philosophical competition, you’ll just be better at arguing your perspective. Who knows? Maybe you will end up changing a few minds after all. If you’re lucky, your own positions will evolve for the better as well.
- Assume the best in each other.
Plucking a few statements out of context to silently discount whole individuals will not help you reach common ground with your classmates, coworkers, and instructors. You need to listen carefully (see above) and tolerantly (see above), over delicious coffee (see above), and often you will find your ideological rivals share more beliefs with you than you may expect. And when words from their mouths sound vile? Assume the most well-intentioned meaning until you ask and understand. This, you will find, will exponentially increase your patience with others and drastically reduce your number of social media rants.
- Express yourself honestly.
There’s nothing more psychologically therapeutic than an honest, respectful discussion. Often times, when we say something out loud, we realize for the first time what we truly believe; other times, long-held positions are not only reiterated but strengthened by exposure to the world. Do not be afraid to reword, switch a position, or be questioned on a shaky position. So long as you and your friendly rhetorical sparring partners have declined to turn on one another with hostility (even the social, nonviolent kind), you will be built up rather than torn down for making a thought-provoking claim. I assure you that the best way to get that kind of respect is to be the one to start giving it.
This list could be expanded ad nauseum. From holding the door to making introductions and shaking hands; from large gestures like extending social invitations to simply making extended eye contact and listening for a while without undue interruption, there are a million and one ways to improve the atmosphere at Penn and similar institutions. The situation on campus mirrors the challenge the entire country faces today, as characterized by Arthur Brooks when he visited campus in 2016. The atmosphere is one of contempt, not compassion. The atmosphere is one of relative silence, rather than a healthy flow of diverse thought.
By and large, the anti-expression hostility one notes at Penn does not originate with authoritarians who clamp down on First Amendment rights. It doesn’t even come from violent attacks based on self-expression. We are not precisely hostile to people. Rather, we are hostile to the unfettered flow of ideas. With more ideas on the table, we can all be more picky with which ones we believe. That can mean higher quality beliefs for everyone. It can mean higher quality people, and a healthier, less contemptuous society. It can mean the betterment of humanity, and you can be a hero who makes that happen.
Now, go out there and save the world. It’s the right thing to do. And you get cappuccino.
(Photo by Jeffrey Vinocur/Wikimedia)