Friday, June 17, 2016

"Respect for the opinions of others"

I normally avoid political topics both online and in person, because I have never felt that I have had enough time to think through my views in a way that results in my being able to articulate them in the way that I would like. So rather than stumble over the words or be misunderstood, I just don't get involved in the conversation. (There is also often not much point being involved in a conversation that I don't really have a part of. I have spent the last more than a decade being disenfranchized. As an immigrant who has lived in three different countries during that period, the only elections that I am able to participate in are US federal elections. I look forward to the day that this changes.)

But today I have something to say, because it ties in with some of my -- also rather inarticulate -- thoughts about trigger warnings, safe spaces, disclaimers, etc. So I'm going to forge ahead, inarticulateness and all.

Yesterday, a British MP in a constituency less than two hours from where I live, was shot and stabbed to death. Coming hard on the heals of the tragedy in Orlando, I struggled with feeling like a hypocrite in that that one single death affected me more than the many-times-worse tragedy a few days ago. (But this is not the place to get into that topic). I have been reading a number of the commentary and news pieces that have been written since, and was particularly struck this morning by Polly Toynbee's piece in the Guardian, The mood is ugly, and an MP is dead, because it was one of the few that came out and said what everyone on social media was saying: Actions like this don't arise in a void:

This attack on a public official cannot be viewed in isolation. It occurs against a backdrop of an ugly public mood in which we have been told to despise the political class, to distrust those who serve, to dehumanise those with whom we do not readily identify.

And more importantly:

Democracy is precious and precarious. It relies on a degree of respect for the opinions of others, soliciting support for political ideas without stirring up undue savagery and hatred against opponents.

Let me repeat Toynbee's words again It relies on a degree of respect for the opinions of others. This includes opinions you disagree with, views you find distasteful, and ideas you find reprehensible. And this is what bothers me about what many have called the "(new) infantilization of college students" (see here, here, and here). I don't want to deny the usefulness of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other measures that can be taken to safeguard the mental health of students. But safeguarding their mental health cannot be the primary goal of higher education, nor are these measures beneficial when they are the only measures on hand. Hand in hand with these things we need to teach people the appropriate way to respond when they are faced with opinions that are contrary, sometimes radically, to theirs. Democracy relies upon this.

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