I came across this article in The Atlantic on a post by Mike Carlson (writer, broadcaster and NFL commentator for the BBC and Channel 4). It describes an incident at Yale University which appears to have exploded out of nowhere, and which illustrates a worrying tendency – the expectation of having one’s opinion accepted no matter what, and the unwillingness to debate rather than harangue. Please read it – it’s a long article, but carefully written and argued:
As the saying goes, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. But everyone isn’t entitled to throw a hissy fit when their opinion isn’t automatically accepted. Is this a reflection of modern thinking in general, or just of a privileged minority (in this case, a number of Yale students) who have too high a sense of their own importance, intolerantly attacking perceived intolerance?
There’s another issue here – the desire for everything to be simple, and the rejection of nuance. As the article sets out, the email against which the students were protesting was carefully written, balanced, and arguing in favour of students being allowed to make up their own minds and to make, and learn from, their own mistakes. But all the nuance and subtlety seem to have been ignored and replaced with an attitude of “I demand the right not to be offended. You have offended me so you must resign.”
I think this paragraph is particularly telling, when Nicolas Christakis has been harangued by a group of students, which was caught on video:
Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.
The article also makes a point about the “infantilisation” of the students – they appear to want University to be a home, a safe place that doesn’t challenge their view of the world or upset them in any way. But one of the great strengths of University life, especially at somewhere as intellectually prestigious as Yale, must surely be to have your view challenged, to see that others think differently, to learn to listen and debate, sometimes to win and sometimes to lose in an argument; to develop your own ideas and thoughts, and to reject the idea of needing others to tell you what to think.
This may be limited to Yale, but it seems unlikely.
Then I came across another example. Mike Greenberg is a journalist and broadcaster for ESPN, and recently expressed an opinion on air and on Twitter in favour of the action of the University of Missouri (American) Football Team who staged a protest in support of another student against a history of perceived racism in the University. I don’t know the details, the rights and wrongs of the case, but that’s not the point – the point is the reaction of many of Mike Greenberg’s followers on Facebook, who “unfollowed” him in response to him expressing an opinion. As he wrote:
If you want to unfollow me because you disagree with my opinions, you are certainly welcome to do so. But I do have one question: If you refuse to engage with anyone who holds a different point of view, how do you ever learn anything? I listen to, and follow on Twitter, lots of people I disagree with. Most times my opinions are confirmed. Other times, I learn things, my mind is opened or changed to a thought I hadn’t previously considered. So, just know that if you disagree I still value your perspective, and if you unfollow you are welcome back any time.
Mike Greenberg’s followers may or may not be students or young adults, but this is another manifestation of the same issue – “you don’t agree with me so I’m not going to listen to you.”
I tend to hold few strong views, and generally to accept that there are two sides to every story. I like to think I don’t rush to judgement, but want to listen to argument. I find it hard to understand people who can’t or wont do that, or are so committed to a single view of the world that their only answer is either to shout more loudly and demand their view be accepted, or to disengage completely and stay safely with like-minded souls and entrench further.