Editor’s Note: The views expressed in the following column are those of the writer only and do not necessarily represent the views of the Collegian or its editorial board.
Last year I wrote in The Collegian that the diversity of political views at Colorado State is a major strength of our campus community.
“CSU Rams should be proud of their oasis of pluralism,” I urged.“And they should be jealous guardians of its future.”
My point was that students can learn a lot from others with whom they disagree, and that we should acknowledge the value of a campus community where the free exchange of political ideas is truly fostered.
Few people would openly disagree with this sentiment. Indeed, there is a prevalent belief today that diversity of every sort—racial, ethnic, gender and so on—is an intrinsic good that needs to be promoted, protected, and celebrated. I agree. But despite the overwhelming social pressure for people to show an outward commitment to toleration in all its forms, the truth is that tolerance can be an obnoxiously difficult principle to put into practice when it counts.
There is no doubt that the past 12 months have put a visible strain on peoples’ patience with political disagreement. Last year’s presidential election campaigns were the ugliest and most divisive in recent memory. In choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, voters were not only forced to probe the backrooms of their own minds but also had to grapple with the unmasked and sometimes unexpected beliefs of other people—including those close to them. Americans learned a lot about themselves and about each other, and not all of it was welcomed news. It undoubtably created social divide.
What should we do about this gaping chasm in the public sphere?
One option is to emulate what’s happening elsewhere across U.S. academia: reject tolerance in favor of a more combative and exclusionary form of politics. From Wellesley to Middlebury and from Berkeley to Claremont, some students and faculty have openly concluded that the answer to bitter disagreement must be political trench warfare.
For people of this mindset, politics is a dangerous business and so it’s necessary to possess physical control over campus spaces and to regulate the ideas that can be expressed within those spaces. In turn, this means that judgments must be made about which views are worth tolerating and which should be considered threatening or otherwise beyond the pale. And of course, “appropriate measures” must be taken against those who transgress the agreed upon bounds of acceptability.
There are many problems with this prescription. But consider just one of them: If it becomes standard practice for one side to use physical force and intimidation to silence its political opponents, what happens when those opponents begin to use the same tactics in return? Are we ready to accept college campuses where rival groups routinely use brute force to impose their views on others, each rightly assuming that only physicality will get their voices heard? If so, we can forget about safe spaces and free-speech zones. Our campuses will become war zones.
Only a shared commitment to tolerance can guarantee freedom of expression for all. Instead of shutting down opposing voices, being truly tolerant means choosing to accept disagreement as a fact of life.
Of course, it would take the uncommon patience of a saint to debate endlessly with people we find repulsive. Fortunately, tolerance doesn’t demand that that we embrace our political adversaries as friends. In an open and tolerant society, we are even free to hate and despise them. But if tolerance is to have any practical application in our lives, we can never silence them lest we concede to others the right to silence ourselves.
The point is that tolerance cannot be left an abstract ideal on our campuses. It must be cherished as an eminently practical—and actually quite radical—way of organizing our social and political interactions. Tolerance is nothing short of indispensable to democratic societies, and becoming adept at tolerance is one of the most vital ways in which individual citizens can contribute to the health and longevity of democracy as a mode of government.
Unfortunately, tolerance does not come naturally. It’s an acquired behavior that must be practiced in our everyday lives. Indeed, the same is true of the politics of intolerance and the mobilization of violence. Both types of behavior are learned, and each can be unlearned. It’s up to us as a campus community to decide which variety of politics we want to train ourselves in.
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