I can recall a time in high school when I was sitting in a class called “The History of the Americas,” and our teacher, Mr. Perles, said to the class: “remember, always be skeptical.” As I heard these words, I felt a sense of liberation, but in the moment, I didn’t know why.
Maybe it was because I was living in an illusion of order in a suburb on Long Island. Maybe it was because I wanted to confront the emptiness I was feeling. Maybe it was because I craved meaning and truth.
When I look back on what I felt, I think it was a combination of all these things. Skepticism meant approaching a conversation or topic with understanding and the uncertainty that I might change my beliefs, without desperately trying to force them upon whomever I was speaking to.
Although I must admit I am guilty of going into a conversation trying to change someone’s view of the world, whether I am speaking to my grandmother who voted for Trump or my sister who voted for Hillary.
The end result of either conversation is the same. When I try to change their view of the world, I end up angry, resentful and condescending towards them. At first, these emotions make me feel like I am on top of the world, but as the day rolls on, I feel a deep sense of regret and frustration. I ask myself: Why did I act in such a way? What was my goal? Who did I really want to talk to? After I reflected on these questions, I realized my desire was to have control and certainty over my beliefs. I left no room for uncertainty or understanding.
In America’s current political climate, certainty and hate replace understanding and uncertainty. The Left is quick to dismiss the Right for their views, and vice versa. The critique usually goes something like this: all Trump supporters are perpetuating white supremacy, while all Leftists are social justice warriors who want to destroy America. The polarization between the parties has never been worse, and the space for civility couldn’t be scarcer.
Add to this polarization an election year, a raging pandemic, the increased threat of nuclear war, an environmental catastrophe, mass protests over the death of George Floyd, Great Depression levels of unemployment, rising income inequality and the infamous President Donald J. Trump.
I am not saying this to scare anybody (maybe a little), but what I am trying to address is that we are living in a chaotic world, without any understanding or empathy for our fellow Americans.
In a new Cato Research Poll, 62 percent of Americans say they have political views they’re afraid to share. Moreover, 50 percent of strong liberals support firing Trump donors and 36 percent of strong conservatives support firing Biden donors.
These statistics are scary and absurd. How are we to heal America if citizens cannot voice their honest opinion?
In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill wrote about how the only way to learn another side is to hear from the very people who hold such offensive views. We can no longer choose to act as witch-hunting moralists and cancel offensive views like priests in “The Crucible.” This “solution” merely places band-aids on the very problems that need addressing.
We must be faithful to Noam Chomsky’s (the professor whose picture is at the top of the Orient’s Op-Ed page) opinion on free speech. That is: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
On a majority liberal campus, we need to remember that the Left championed the rights of free speech in the ’60s when the Right attempted to shield college campuses from their “harmful” views.
What I am suggesting is a discourse that confronts a diversity of viewpoints with understanding, rather than slander and attack. This means having the courage and humility to recognize someone you don’t agree with as a human with flaws, strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and, most of all, a worthiness to love.
This is the only way forward for America. Or, in the words of James Baldwin: “If love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.”
Dylan Welch is a member of the Class of 2021.