Lawrence’s latest convocation address specifically highlighted the theme of unity, and also highlighted the role of a liberal arts college in fostering that unity. The convocation also, however, touched on our country’s current state of polarization.
We must now discern and face up to the most consequential factors that have led us to this state. Key to our national polarization is an inability to listen to and respect those with whom there are disagreements, an inability to think critically and with nuance, and an inability to sustain dialogue. When these virtues are lost, violence ensues.
Unfortunately, recent examples of America’s polarization have only been the tip of the iceberg. Clashes between different political factions have been growing with increasing intensity for months, and every day seems to bear a new example. Lawrence has not seen violence, but the phenomena that lead to it have been present here for at least as long as I have been a student, if not longer. This statement of observation is not an attempt to place blame on any particular “side”. The “us vs. them” mentality is a huge factor in the larger problem, and at times I have been as guilty as others in perpetuating that mentality.
The underlying problem in our current situation is that we are being pushed to react. We are being pushed by the media, by politicians, by social media, and by our friends. Not to think, but to react. Not to create, but to react. Outrage has become the currency of the day, and public opinion has become its bank. No matter what our individual politics are, many of us read about what we see as the latest outrage on social media, and hit repost. We virtue signal incessantly, decrying the other “side.” We insist that we are right before even considering that we could be wrong.
But even if we are in fact right, this method of reaction fails in other ways: First, it doesn’t contribute to any intellectual or spiritual growth, but only is a comfort-zone, feel-good recitation of what someone already knows (or thinks they know); second, it does nothing to foster the type of unity and understanding (of each other and of greater truth) necessary to change society for the better. What we see as the latest outrages consume our creative and spiritual capacity. But do we really want to accept that paradigm? Do we really want to continue to be its willing participants?
I would like to offer an alternative, one that begins with recognizing that change begins with ourselves. It also recognizes that frustration is natural, but it is not creative, and the airing of grievances cannot be the only ingredient in change. This alternative recognizes the difference between being an adversary and being an advocate. An adversary is characterized by criticism of others, kneejerk reaction, and an “us vs. them” mentality. An advocate is more concerned with personal action than
with what others are doing, and strives to live (not merely react) by example. An advocate strives for what is possible, working for something, not only against other things.
Last year, my friends and I founded the campus organization Students for Free Thought, with the intention of objectively examining some of the unchallenged assumptions and dogmas present at Lawrence and in society at large. We wanted SFT to be an example of what inquiry at a liberal arts college can be, creating a space where Lawrentians could examine and discuss topics objectively and respectfully, with an emphasis on scientific research and reason. We intended to change Lawrence’s adversarial culture through the process. We were not trying to make campus more open to only our ideas, we were trying to make campus more open to all ideas. Not only were we challenging certain ideas and dogmas, we were challenging ourselves. We founded the club with the belief that people can use reason to see past their biases, recognizing that no single person has a monopoly on truth, and also recognizing that nuance is often present in the issues of our day.
We certainly hit a nerve. We thought that the ensuing controversy over our club, stemming from a documentary we showed on free speech, was perhaps extreme. But the controversy did highlight some important feelings and concerns from Lawrentians of many different stripes, and it was good that these feelings and concerns were brought into the open rather than being left to simmer unaddressed. An unfortunate part of the controversy
was that it exacerbated many of the divisions we hoped our club could help heal. Instead of being the positive example we wanted our club to be, we were forced into taking an adversarial role, making us mere actors in the simplistic yet all-to-common narrative of “free speech vs. political correctness” that is playing out on today’s college campuses.
While some of those who opposed the existence of our club resorted to lies and gossip about our members, we could have done more to avert the situation in the first place had we, among other things, made our intentions more clear and made some of our advertisements less inflammatory. The controversy last year certainly proved how easy it is to get sucked into the adversarial role that is fostering so much division in our nation.
We have worked to learn from our mistakes. We have completely re-written our mission statement and statement of purpose, created a Facebook group that can be joined by any Lawrentian, and have reached out to Lawrentians who were initially skeptical of our group. We want Students for Free Thought to be a model of positive example for what inquiry can look like at a liberal arts college, and we believe that the type of rational and scientific inquiry our club promotes is key for recognizing nuance, challenging biases, and overcoming the adversarial “us vs. them” mentality that is fostering division in our country and on our campus. While pending LUCC recognition, Students for Free Thought is still an option for those who would like to participate in reasoned, objective inquiry about the issues of our day.
There are some who will not want to be part of Students for Free Thought, and that is okay. But I hope that all Lawrentians can coexist peacefully and respectfully, moving forward with a spirit of forgiveness, and living the positive change we all wish to see
happen on our campus and in our world, rather than embracing the “us vs. them” attitude that only contributes to the already deafening, useless noise.
This coexistence will rely on a few things. First is openness. We must not all be so set in our beliefs that we refuse to consider that we may be wrong.
The second is respect for freedom of speech. This figured importantly into the recent convocation, with the affirmation that free speech is an essential ingredient to a liberal arts education. Even if certain examples of free speech foster division, the inextricable ideals of free speech and free inquiry remain necessary for the honest examination of truth. Furthermore, the right to speak freely safeguards the possibility of peaceable discourse, ensuring that even those with discordant or divisive ideas have the option to express those ideas without physical violence.
Finally, there is neighborliness. We must recognize that no matter how deep our disagreements run, we are members of the same community, and our disagreements shouldn’t force us to isolate ourselves from one another.
If we continue to disagree on the issues of our day, so be it, but let our disagreements be informed by knowledge. Let us be willing to engage with each other about them. Let us still greet each other as neighbors and accept each other as members of the same community, sharing in our endeavors.
If we step outside of our intellectual comfort zone even a little and challenge ourselves to live by example rather than by reaction, the change we wish to see may come to fruition. Let’s challenge ourselves to do this. Some today say that America is heading towards worsening division, violence, or even civil war. They say that these things are inevitable, that our generation is hopeless in preventing them. At times, it is hard to
disagree. Complacency with and contribution towards our current state of division may prove them right. But let’s give ourselves the chance to do things differently. Let’s prove them wrong.