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Dismantling Brown's Culture of Conformity By: Benjamin Bright
The Brown Daily Herald | Thursday, December 07, 2006

This past semester, I've tried to write columns that went against the grain of accepted discourse at Brown. Although I admit I am a polemicist at heart, I did have a loftier goal in mind than simply stirring the pot. Brown should be a marketplace of ideas where values are shaped by vigorous argument and confrontation. And while Brown administrators fill our ears with the ideals of critical thinking, I believe that the University may be failing in its mission.

All of us should know the following talking point for pundits: In March 2001, a group of students seized an entire print edition of The Brown Daily Herald and seized the entire print edition, which ran an advertisement by conservative commentator David Horowitz condemning slavery reparations. While this mob of young authoritarians was roundly condemned by most students and administrators, I would still argue that a culture of conformity exists on Brown's campus that will not tolerate speech that offends liberal sensitivities.

Just three weeks ago, for example, Amy Littlefield '09 published a column in The Herald that condemned protestors outside Sex Power God for "sexual harassment" ("Will we condone sexual harassment," Nov. 10). She based her argument on Brown's Office of Equal Employment's sexual harassment brochure, from which her article flowed logically. It did not occur to her, however, that those protocols that eschew free speech might be wrong. Is the freedom from being offended now a civil right? I certainly hope not. Based on Littlefield's argument, those protestors ought to be silenced and censored to protect those fragile members of the student community who might be offended.

Freedom of thought and speech was a favorite topic of John Stuart Mill. In "On Liberty," he writes "there is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action."

In other words, the truth of any matter can only be determined through full debate in a public forum, and those who seek to silence other ideas because they are "offensive" or "harmful" or 'hateful' ruin the debate with a disservice to the truth. The key to refuting bad speech is good speech, not censorship.

While I cannot speak for every student on campus, in my fourth year as a student at Brown, I do not believe that questions which defy conventional wisdom are even being asked. Certain ideas and actions are so unpardonable at Brown that they are crushed by the long arm of self-censorship and political correctness.

How is it possible that in four years at Brown I have not once heard a debate among students about abortion or gay marriage? Isn't that weird? They're two of the most contentious issues of our generation, but no one is talking about them. Why is that?

Some would say the problem is apathy. But I think the problem is more serious. According to Wendy Kaminer, author of "Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today," Brown's problems are part of a wider trend of a culture of victimization and self-righteous intolerance. It began with the feminist anti-porn movement in the 1980s, whose activists were among the first to break down the boundary between words and action: porn is violence, or at least, encourages violent acts. This line of reasoning has infected the progressive movement and academic institutions as a whole in the form of new types of hate speech: misogyny, racism, bigotry, xenophobia and more. All are potentially harmful and encourage violence toward others.

Thus, if a student were to question gay marriage or abortion during a conversation in a dining hall, he would risk revealing himself as a bigot or misogynist - fodder for the cultural censor. That's how a culture of conformity comes about.

What's missing in the academic and social experience at Brown is the exposure to ideas that challenge our own preferences and prejudices that we held when we first arrived. Critical thinking refers to more than how we look at the world, but how we look at ourselves - whether our basic beliefs are examined, prodded and nudged by contrasting arguments and opinions. That is the most fundamental principle of academic freedom, and should be the priority of the administration's enrichment plan.

Benjamin Bright '07 has been invited to a meeting by the Dean of Campus Conformity.

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