One of the greatest strengths of the American system of higher education is its diversity: diverse student bodies, diverse types of colleges and universities, diverse opinions on matters academic or otherwise. I love all of this, but what I love most is the idea of academic freedom: that students, staff, and faculty have the protected right to hold, debate, and espouse their own ideas. This is an extension of the American right to free speech, and it’s pretty amazing. Not every country allows their faculty to promote ideas that may be in direct opposition to the espoused values of the university, its administrators, politicians, or other authorities. When academic freedom and the tenure system work correctly, they ensure that faculty members can speak freely about even controversial topics, without fear of retribution by losing their position. (Whether academic freedom and the tenure system work as they should is a looong discussion for another time.)
Expanding this idea to every aspect of life becomes civil discourse: discussions that allow myriad opinions, are respectful to all involved, and in which each participant listens actively. I can’t stand angry conflict; the words “pundit” and “talk radio” make me shudder. Many of my friends have quite different ideas on religion, politics, education, childbirth, family dynamics, and various academic theses. One of my greatest pleasures is talking to a friend who has a completely different perspective. (I treasure this even more because it’s not incredibly easy to find people of diverse belief, politics, or ethnicity where I live.) I’d call these conversations respectful debates, but that implies arguments and counter-arguments. These are long, slow conversations in which each of us shares our perspective.
Arguments with heated remarks on both sides make me deeply uncomfortable. I’m all for passion in your beliefs, but shouting matches are just plain ugly: it’s the quickest wit and the loudest voice that usually win. I like writing because I think slowly, and I usually end up on the short end of any verbal argument or formal debate.
Granted, I’m biased: I’m a slow thinker and a political moderate (so liberals find me too small-minded and conservatives find me too tree-huggy). I switched denominations last year based on my desire for easy-going, respectful room for differences of opinion. And perhaps the knock-down-drag-out style of debate is one more way of living that I should come to accept and respect. But I’m not fond of how it can bully outsiders into silence and give the false impression that they stand alone. (Helpful hint: “gee, I thought you were intelligent” is not a tolerant or respectful response to someone’s stated opinion.)
It’s amazing that there are nearly 7 billion individuals on our planet, each with their own set of experiences. We are unique, and yet we all share many commonalities. To me, that’s one of the most incredible parts of life: getting to know these individuals, learning about their experience, their perspective. Finding our similarities shows us we are not alone, and viewing differences causes us to question our own beliefs, to test them and decide whether to keep them or to change, to grow.* Each of the people in our lives makes our own life richer. We should do them the courtesy of listening, being respectful, and answering honestly.
At least… that’s my opinion!
*and that leads into the idea of “informed opinion,” which will be a soapbox for another post!