It's Time to Burst the Bubbles

It's Time to Burst the Bubbles
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I go out of my way to listen to differing viewpoints. While I have strong political opinions, I make a point of trying to make sure I am informed about what those with different ideas think.

I hate living in a political bubble. More and more people, though, seem to find it best to surround themselves with those who feel and think as they do.

Why, if someone disagrees with us, should we withdraw to a “safe space”? In my view, we shouldn’t.

To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr, we should seek truth in our opponent’s error and error in our own truth. Increasingly, though, we do not.

In matters of civil liberties, I am unabashedly liberal. I believe strongly in personal freedoms. First and foremost, I embrace the right of free speech. Even when that speech is obnoxious, even when I have views diametrically opposed to it, it must be constitutionally protected against governmental restrictions.

Barring the famous exception of crying “fire” in a crowded theater, speech should always be accepted, even if unacceptable. We need to listen to opposing ideas, while at the same time speaking out forcefully when we disagree.

Hearing words or observing actions one does not like is uncomfortable. The alternative, though — putting restrictions on those words or actions — is far worse. What one may like today, someone else might seek to bar tomorrow.

Last year, football player Colin Kaepernick knelt during the singing of the national anthem. He had a right to express his opinion (about police treatment of African-Americans) in any way he saw fit.

By the same token, his employer, the San Francisco Forty-Niners, had the right to drop him from the team. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from passing any law restricting the right of speech, but it does not prohibit a private employer, at his place of employment, from doing so.

The president’s “SOBs” comment about NFL players who take a knee unleashed a storm of protest, which resulted in teams and their owners joining, in diverse ways, Kaepernick’s stance from last year. Were they right? They certainly were on firm legal ground.

Bringing the flag into a debate, whether through demonstrations at football games or, more drastically, flag-burning, raises the hackles of many. Yet, as the Supreme Court decided in Texas v. Johnson, flag-burning is “symbolic speech” and, therefore, protected by the First Amendment (Antonin Scalia, hardly a liberal icon, joined the majority in overturning flag-burning restrictions in 48 states).

While the issues involving football and the flag command most of the attention of the press and the public today, a far more troubling series of events is taking place on college campuses. Speakers are either being interrupted or prevented from speaking at all.

Colleges have an obligation to expose students to a variety of viewpoints. By “protecting” students from unpleasant ideas or words, they are failing their obligation; by refusing to allow diverse views expressed by invited speakers because some find those views offensive is irresponsible.

As a college president, I tried during my 24 years to ensure we exposed students to views from a range of perspectives, even when those views might make students uncomfortable. If we invited a speaker who was left of center, we then invited one from the right. Conversely, if the speaker was conservative, we followed up immediately with someone whose views on the subject were liberal.

Unfortunately, that position is not embraced on many campuses today. And, even when it is, the invitation to someone with a point of view some might oppose often results either in the person being “disinvited” or, if the invitation remains in place, the speaker being shouted down.

Berkeley and Middlebury are prime examples. Free speech is not always free. It should be everywhere in our country; it must be on college campuses. Allowing people to silence others who have differing thoughts is antithetical to what a college or university stands for, or, at least, should embrace.

Colleges and universities exist, in large part, to broaden the minds of young men and women. How can those minds be broadened if only one viewpoint is expressed? They cannot.

People need to take a deep breath and think about the consequences of their actions. Denying the Kaepernicks of our country the right to express their views is wrong. So, too, is preventing speakers on the far right from expressing their opinions.

At some point, we will learn the wisdom in Reinhold Niebuhr’s statement to seek the error and truth in all positions. To do so, though, we must be wise enough to emerge from our bubbles and listen to divergent viewpoints, not avoid views we don’t like.

My hope is we will embrace Niebuhr’s wisdom sooner rather than later, burst our bubbles, and expose ourselves to those with different opinions.

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