Rethinking political discourse
BridgeND | Monday, August 28, 2017
Over the course of the past year, we have witnessed concerning trends regarding the status of free speech on college campuses. Controversial speakers face great difficulty to speak, often due to controversial tactics used by protesters. Such happenings have created an unfortunate paradigm on campuses across the country, where fear of being ostracized and shamed stunts the very intellectual growth that we came to university for in the first place.
In this collegiate drama, instigation and violence replace mediation and conversation. Naturally, many such events strike many people as intrinsically and explicitly wrong. In many ways, they are. They communicate that violence works; that if you want to wield influence, you better sharpen your elbows, not your mind. They communicate that the university administration is the handmaiden of intimidation. Worse yet, they create a culture of polarization that warps in and victimizes innocent people who never intended to get involved in violence in the first place.
At Notre Dame, we are blessed to learn in an environment where violent protest is almost universally shunned and free speech is rightly cherished. As such, we have a unique opportunity to shift the paradigm to create communities on campus that facilitate dialogue between political opposites; that value the intellectual power of learning from opposing views; that don’t squelch viewpoint diversity but celebrate it. After all, isn’t that what a university education is all about?
At BridgeND, we are seizing this opportunity. BridgeND is one of several chapters across the US that fall under the umbrella of the parent organization, BridgeUSA. At its core, BridgeND aims to create a collaborative community that values viewpoint diversity, engages in virtuous discourse and broadens students’ intellectual horizons by exposing them to a variety of viewpoints and the scrutiny of having their own views challenged, rethought and refined.
In addition to hosting our own meetings and events where students from all across the political spectrum come together to discuss issues of national importance, we work with other campus organizations to create a more prolific political environment. For instance, in one of our signature events called the Melting Pot, we brought various student leaders together to debate the topic of immigration. In addition to College Democrats and Republicans giving their party platforms, GreeND (an environmental group) spoke about the potential of climate migration, Right to Life (the campus Pro-Life group) focused on the morality of the issue through a Catholic lens, Young Americans for Freedom evaluated the economic implications of immigration from a libertarian standpoint and Students for Worker Justice spoke on the working conditions for immigrants and the impact of immigration on low-wage workers and unions. In doing so, students left with an expanded understanding of immigration, understanding that it’s not as simple as left versus right, and with consideration of brand new ways of looking at the issue.
To understand BridgeND, however, you must first understand what we are not. For instance, we are not a “free speech” organization. While we recognize its importance, free speech for its own sake will not cure the ills related to toxic political cultures on college campuses, and in many cases, when left unfettered, it can leave us further from the end in sight. Instead, we take a more deliberate approach to create communities with dialogue that foster epistemic humility, broaden intellectual horizons and generates genuine understanding. We do so by promoting viewpoint diversity, challenging student preconceptions and engaging in responsible discourse.
Furthermore, we are not a “College Moderates” organization. The end of moderation is compromise, which differs from the end we have in sight. While compromise may at times be an outcome, ultimately what we strive for is not concession but understanding; not moderation but empathy. Moderation also implies a bias towards low intensity, where pacification comes at the price of passion. At BridgeND, we prize passion. Arguments infused with passion — even to the point of ferocity — are both expected and appreciated. Ultimately, we envision a community where people can develop a genuine and holistic understanding of different viewpoints, and in doing so become sharper and more thoughtful in expressing their own beliefs.
The deleterious trends against viewpoint diversity on college campuses around the country threaten not only the wellbeing and livelihood of innocent people, but also pose a looming danger to the very principles that this country is founded upon. The men who framed the Constitution saw heterogeneity as a creative force that would compel us not to hate each other but would enable us to think more productively about the problems of the day. For them, heterogeneity was not a vice but a virtue. In the best moments in our history, this is what we have done.
As we begin a new semester, let’s bear in mind the vision of the framers of the society in which we live. The price of polarization is progress, and progress is much too high a price to pay in a time when we need it more than ever. So this is an open invitation for you to join our community at BridgeND this semester, as we aim to harness Notre Dame’s intellectual force to create a productive environment from which we can all benefit. We hope you will join us.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.