October 2016 (Volume 67, Issue 1)
by David Yin, staff writer
Ideas, like people, are born free and equal. Just as no person should enter this world being a slave or a second class citizen, no ideas should enter discussion being automatically declared offensive or blasphemous. While freedom and equality for people has arguably improved in recent years, freedom and equality for ideas has been left to rot.
This downward trend has not gone unnoticed in the media.
In June 2015, Vox published an article titled “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” in which a professor describes how difficult it is for him to perform his job now that his students demand not to be exposed to “offensive” ideas in literature.
In September 2015, The Atlantic published an op-ed piece titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” in which the authors condemn colleges that don’t offer alternative ideas to what students already think.
In May 2016, left-wing New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wrote “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” in which he scolds himself and other liberals for being so arrogant as to always assume conservatives are wrong.
It is now September, and it’s time for The Hilltopper to discuss this problem in the context of Needham High School.
It is common knowledge that NHS is predominantly liberal, but most would agree that this is not necessarily an issue. The problem is not that liberals outnumber conservatives in the student body. That is to be expected in a town like Needham. The problem also isn’t that some students are butthurt about losing arguments in the classroom–which certainly does happen, but is a non-issue. The problem is that minority viewpoints and the people that hold them are met with derision that transcends rational debate. Students and staff aren’t fully appreciative of the many diverse opinions we do have at NHS, and they should be.
Cal Chatterton, who is a sophomore and a “fairly right-wing Republican”, recalls a time in one of his classes when there was a discussion on “whether putting gender neutral bathrooms into the school was a viable solution to help students that don’t necessarily identify with a gender feel comfortable using the bathroom.” Though it was framed as a debate, there wasn’t much debate at all. Cal’s alleges that “Mr. —- was pungently forcing his opinion [onto] the class that we do in fact need a special bathroom.” He goes on to say, “During the discussion I personally felt like I couldn’t really voice my opinion because the rest of the class morphed into a liberal blob that would turn oppressive if someone disagreed with them.” Oppression, according to him, meant being “penalized or persecuted socially.”
Alexia Davos, a “conservative-leaning Independent,” tried participating in an activity in her class about listing the “pros and cons” of presidential candidates. Of course, “pro” and “con” are subjective, and a pro for one person could be a con for another, unless everybody who was participating thought the same way. Alexia did not think the same way as her “strongly liberal” teacher, and as a result, this is what happened: “When I tried speaking up, [my teacher] just shut me down and moved on to the next candidate. We just couldn’t finish doing that one candidate for some reason.”
Neither of the above students were upset about being outnumbered by people who disagreed with them or upset for simply losing an argument. Instead, they were upset about being discouraged from making an argument in the first place. The staff and students involved in silencing them (“liberal minions”, as Cal would say) decided that rather than letting the opinions of their conservative counterparts be heard, it was better to assume that they were going to be wrong anyway.
It is important to note, however, that only a small minority of students suffer from ideological intolerance as much as Alexia or Cal do. Even within the conservative demographic, their experiences were extreme examples. Tricia Kenney, who identifies as a Republican, says that she has never felt unfree to speak up in class or noticed anyone else feel unfree to speak up in class, though she admits, “It could just be me [who is] not noticing.” Dan Aksman, who is “not too interested in politics,” has before experienced backlash for expressing an “offensive” opinion in school, though he is not bothered and says the consequences were “not very serious.”
I bet that most of you have experiences more similar to those of Tricia and Dan than to those of Cal or Alexia. Many readers may find difficulty sympathizing with Cal and Alexia; however, the thankless attitude toward diverging viewpoints is a weight that the entire NHS community bears together.
The repression of minority opinions hurts everyone who wants to think, to respect, and to communicate. To think means to contemplate one’s own thoughts. To respect means to accept others who may think differently. To communicate means to share your ideas with others, in hopes that both parties benefit. This is difficult to do when unpopular opinions are seen as wrong or dangerous.
Viewpoint diversity is a lot like racial diversity. Exposure to either one breaks the cycle of reinforcing one’s own biases to make way for mutual understanding. While there is decent evidence that shows that racial diversity in schools correlates with some aspects of academic achievement, ideological diversity is the essence of learning itself. It is through consideration of others’ ideas that we refine our own. Given the lengths the school goes to support racial diversity, it is only appropriate that faculty should give viewpoint diversity the attention it deserves.
Whether or not you believe viewpoint diversity is truly welcome at NHS, it is something all should keep in mind. If you believe it is welcome, it is something to be cherished, protected, and refined. If you believe it is unwelcome, it is something to be fought for, so that no one feels unfree to give their opinion in class, so that everyone can benefit from learning in an ideologically diverse environment. Almost everyone interviewed agreed: “There could be a higher level of respect for diverse viewpoints.”