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College students, faculty reflect on importance of civil discourse

and | Monday, April 30, 2018

In the weeks leading up to the April 12 “Gun Rights are Women’s Rights” event organized by the Saint Mary’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), differing perspectives on the issue of gun rights emerged in a very visual way: vandalism of the pre-approved advertisements strewn across campus.

Whether it be through tearing the posters down, writing vulgar comments on the flyers or reporting discomfort to the College, some students vocalized their objections to the occasion through a variety of methods. 

The event featured Antonia Okafor, founder and president of EmPOWERed, who spoke to the Saint Mary’s community regarding her views on gun rights. EmPOWERed advocates for concealed carry on college campuses as a method of self-defense for women, according to Okafor’s website.

Freshman Cecelia Klimek said she saw advertising for the event on Facebook and throughout campus, and her discomfort led to her reaching out to vice president of student affairs Karen Johnson. Klimek said she had many qualms with the event, the most immediate being its contradiction with her interpretation of Catholic teachings.

“My issue was if you’re going to say you’re a pro-life college, then you have to enforce that in every aspect,” she said. “You can’t pick and choose which controversial issues you’re going to allow speakers to come and speak about. They would never allow a pro-choice speaker to come to campus because it’s against Catholic teaching, but they’re going to allow someone who advocates for the AR-15 rifle which literally shreds your organs. It results in a loss of life.”

Though Klimek did not see the event as aligning with Catholic traditions, Johnson said the College examines its educational value in the approval process for all speakers.

“We are guided by our values as an institution of higher learning and our Catholic tradition to choose speakers that foster the open and civil exchange of ideas,” Johnson said in an email. “This does not mean that the College endorses the speaker or his [or] her content, but rather believes that the sharing of diverse ideas and opinions leads to greater opportunity for discourse and learning.”

While Klimek understands the benefit of sharing multiple points of view, she said she still felt the College should have used more discretion in the handling of such a sensitive topic.

“I was just very disappointed in how the administration handled it,” Klimek said. “I don’t blame the club because they have their right to speak their truth. That’s totally fine, and that’s why we have clubs on campus.”

Justice studies and philosophy professor Andrew Pierce said it is important to acknowledge both the difficulty some feel in expressing their views and the advantages of engaging with a variety of perspectives.

“It’s important to be able to hear and react to opinions that you disagree with,” Pierce said. “If someone were to go through their whole college or university education without being confronted with ideas that they disagree with, that would be problematic. They would be missing something important there.”

Senior Clare McKinney, YAF’s president, said she advocates for discussion between people of opposing viewpoints, rather than making assumptions.

“If you actually talk to people, maybe you would see that there is actual personal experiences that make people think the way they do,” McKinney said. “I just think people are so prone to just stereotyping and generalizing on both sides of the political spectrum. So many people think I’m crazy, but I just wish that they would talk to me. I’ve heard girls openly say things, like in hallways or just in school, and they’ll say I’m a racist. My husband’s Cambodian, and I just wish people would talk to me and see that I’m not some crazy person. I just am really passionate about what I believe in because I think it’s the best way to help our society.”

Along with participating in these discussions, McKinney said students should be more willing to listen to the other side. In the case of the “Guns Rights are Women’s Rights” occasion, she said she felt higher attendance would have defused the situation.

“I would have wished that more girls did come who didn’t agree, because then they could come, hear what Antonia had to say and they might have learned something new,” McKinney said. “They might have shifted their perspective. Or, they could have been like, ‘Oh my God this is insane, I am more hard-lined in what I believe.’ But I feel like by ripping down the posters and not going, you are not allowing yourself to have that experience and to have that personal growth.”

After approaching the administration with her frustrations, Klimek said she and professors with views different from Okafor’s decided to attend the event and ask questions to understand the other side’s point of view.

“It was definitely hard to go into, but I was definitely glad I went in the end because I got some perspective and I felt more validated in my own beliefs and in what the College upholds as a Catholic institution, much more so after the presentation than before,” Klimek said.

On October 29, 2015, Feminists United organized a display to present information on other services Planned Parenthood provides outside of abortion. McKinney said this event alone provided a year’s worth of controversy between differing points of view, but now she feels that level of controversy is more frequent.  

“[The Planned Parenthood display] caused a lot of problems, but that was the one incident for the whole year,” McKinney said. “That was the one tense thing between ideologies, where I feel like now there’s something every month where people are just getting really upset. And they don’t really want to talk about it, they just want to make it not happen.”

McKinney said she has been making an effort to reach out and involve different organizations in YAF events by reaching out to those she feels would be interested. However, McKinney said she encountered difficulties throughout these attempts.

“No one got back to me — so I feel like I’m trying and I’m trying, and nothing,” she said.

Klimek also recognizes this lack of communication and said she hopes to see more discourse in the future.

“I hope for future reference that next time a controversial speaker comes to campus — on the Saint Mary’s students’ part — that we engage in more discourse about this, and we all share our opinions,” Klimek said. “If we don’t speak out about this, then one club is allowed to display their agenda all over campus, and the rest of us are silenced by our passiveness.”

Although a college setting may allow for the avoidance of practicing civil discourse, knowing how to engage in these types of conversations is a skill students will need after college, Pierce said.

“I suppose it’s possible to avoid [civil discourse] in this sort of bubble of a college or university, but it’s really not possible to avoid it in the world,” Pierce said. “You know, after people graduate and go out into the world they are going to have to sort of wrestle with these ideas and hopefully wrestle with them in a productive way that doesn’t just shut out everyone that disagrees, but actually finds a way to negotiate those differences and those disagreements.”

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Jordan Cockrum is a junior at Saint Mary's studying Communications and Humanistic Studies. She currently serves as Saint Mary's Editor.

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