Upsetting and Offensive

It’s a rare day when I find that having an opinion is easy. For what it is worth this is close to the 150th blog and to some degree or other, they all express a view and perspective. I normally start with a half-baked idea and then I have to read and then read some more before any judgement is formed.

It is much easier in the pub with mates. You can spout whatever you want and hold your corner. Once it was a game we played to argue a contrary opinion and stick to it. Logic, thought, and data were irrelevant. The silliest and also best arguments are, of course, about the team selection for a football match. It is all bias and reflected in the popularity of all the fantasy football manager games. You can be a manager, without the stress and pit your wits and favouritism against the world. In the real world, what you think doesn’t matter one iota.

But it is different in the world of business and politics. Whatever you think and how you behave have to be far more considered and based on data and not prejudice. What you think will impact and change other’s lives.

The Harvard Crimson is a student newspaper in, well obviously, Harvard and they have just released the results of a survey on their fellow scholars. The top 10 highlights were unsurprising. To me, it showed that Harvard students are little different from any other group of young people. They owned mostly iPhones, and they drank alcohol. More than 90% drink alcohol and most drink every week. More than 1 in 5 leave as a virgin with a similar number having little or no dating experiences. It all sounds normal.

However, on this top 10 list, there was one that caught my eye and I quote from the BBC website.

There were signs that students are self-censoring their views and not debating openly. About two-thirds of students had “at some point chosen not to an express an opinion in an academic setting out of fear it would offend others”. This was particularly the case for Republican supporters. But almost half of the students wanted to have “trigger warnings” if courses were going to include something that could be upsetting or offensive.

One of the great freedoms of the West is the right of free speech and the one place where all opinions should be expressed, debated and considered is in a university.

Universities or the student bodies should not restrict the right of anyone to hold a view and express it. We may not always agree with what is being said and it may even repulse us, but it should be heard. It is only by hearing contrary views that you can hold a strong, conflicting opinion.

We know the worst anecdotes are those that start, this wasn’t me but it happened to a friends’ friend. He was …. I want your experiences. I want an experience that starts with I.

I have always argued and practised, that you need to immerse yourself in an opposing opinion to really hold a valid alternative. For example, if you strongly disagree with prostitution and believe it should be legalised out of existence then before I will listen to you and what you have to say, I need to know that among your many and close friends are those who work in the profession.  I don’t want to hear you quoting what others have heard what others have said.

Worst of all are students protecting themselves from anything they think may be disturbing by sticking their fingers firmly into their ears. I had heard of these trigger warnings in UK universities but didn’t quite take in their import.

The idea that learning is built on the shoulders of giants goes back to the 12th Century and discovering truth by building on previous discoveries. But it is not always the giants that teach us. Sometimes it is those who have got it wrong. The giants will help us discover the fallacies and flaws.

This is a worrying trend. I want to hear of students willing to hear every argument. Understanding why an argument is upsetting and offensive is the beginning of the alternative.