Time to listen to “outsider views”

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Amherst school system is its record of encouraging the development of its students into precocious, politically-aware young people, strong in their convictions and uncompromising in their search for change.

That rejection of compromise has been a key factor in the success of  numerous walk-outs, sit-ins, and awareness-raising events over the past few years.  Now, though, as political tensions mount, we must learn to listen to those with whom we disagree.

When I asked a number of classmates to take an Internet poll about their experience of civil discourse within the student body, it became clear almost immediately that students were dissatisfied and disappointed by the closed-mindedness of their peers; of the 75 respondents, 56% felt that ARHS’s student community fails to foster discussion of contrasting opinions.

An anonymous respondent who expressed opposition to undocumented immigration, third-wave feminism, and the Black Lives Matter movement wrote that “non-liberal opinions are generally dismissed and met with strong hostility and moral vanity.”

Another student, a self-identified Democrat, said, “We have the unfortunate philosophy of ‘we’re liberal and open minded unless you disagree with us.’”

When brought face to face with ideologies which they oppose,  many students immediately shut the purveyor of these ideas out of the conversation, labeling them as “ignorant,” “bigoted,” and even “fascist.”   

The root of bigotry is ignorance.  Rather than leaping upon those who express views that we might consider prejudiced and provincial, we have a duty to educate and debate those with whom we disagree.

What’s more, we have to be careful with labeling bigots as such; ostracising those who express opinions that are unsavoury to us will only polarize the community further.

Having spent two and a half years at a British boarding school, a bastion of casual classism, sexism, and homophobia, I have firsthand experience of how it feels to hold outsider views.  

The pressure to conform is palpable, and the fear of expressing divergent opinions is crippling. Students who don’t understand find themselves trapped.  They risk alienating themselves.

This arises from an environment where views seen as counter to the norm, be they fiscally conservative, socially conservative, or just confused, have so often been ruthlessly cut out of conversation.

The climate of the school suffers unilaterally, and the anger caused by the out-of-hand dismissal of an opinion is exacerbated if the reasons therefore are unclear, creating an elite class of “socially enlightened” students, only polarizing the community further.

It is imperative that we strive to understand others’ perspectives, irrespective of how appalling we might find their opinions. We must hear them out, and tell them why we disagree–and, even more importantly, we must know why we disagree.

A strong, thoughtful politically-active community is fueled not only by the civil discussion and debate of honest and diverse opinions, but also by self-criticism and understanding of our shortcomings.  

Improvement of the community as a whole starts with discussion.