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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial: Bring back open conversation

Students prepare for class in Phillips 208 on Monday, March 18, 2019.

In the wake of controversies at UNC, Harvard University and other college campuses across the country, it is clear universities have become the focal point for a number of issues, including what we'd call a modern democratic crisis: How to regulate hate speech without poisoning independent thought with excessive self-censorship.

The reason college campuses have become sore spots for this controversy stems from the importance of open conversation in higher education. Investigations into potentially hateful speech has sparked our attention as an editorial board, and we want to take a nuanced look at how we — students, learners, professors and Americans in general — receive and react to disagreement.

The line between hurtful language and hate speech has become blurred. As a result, productive ongoing conversation has been subdued by resorting to punishment and silence.

The issue mostly stems from our response. Most of us, if not all, have been guilty of shutting down or rushing to react rather than rationally responding to speech we disagree with or find potentially harmful. 

Of course, there are moments when we should leave a space when a conversation is no longer productive and does in fact affect our personhood. We could continue to affirm that you have that option to leave a conversation you don’t agree with, to protest and to speak out against hate speech, because all of these things are still of high importance. We are all aware, and perhaps too aware, of this right. We've found that many have become too fond of leaving a conversation before it has the chance to really begin. 

Real, educational and beneficial conversations are rooted in disagreement. We should possess the ability to tell another adult that we found their comment hurtful without resorting to anger or avoidance. We recoil when we hear what we don’t like, and oftentimes mistakenly label hurt as hate.

One of the defining traits of a college classroom is the promise that you will encounter peers and professors who hold different beliefs from you. Perhaps they will change your perspective or you theirs, or maybe you’ll walk away even firmer in your stance. Regardless of the outcome, everyone on this campus should be allowed to express their opinions and ideas to one another in a respectful and productive manner without fear of ostracism or intimidation.

As students, our duty to one another is to pursue knowledge in a good faith effort. To assume the best in others, to dismantle ignorance and build our collective education. By treating the classroom as a war zone, we nurture the violent polarization that afflicts democracy as a whole.

There is no standard for these difficult conversations. Because topics such as race, sexuality and gender are so nuanced, there is no way to create a hypothetical that covers all bases. We must take difficult conversations as they come, stepping into them with an open mind each time. 

Speech discourse has also added further fuel to the dumpster fire that is the polarization between the political left and right. Though both agree that free speech as a provision of the Constitution is an inalienable right, where it should be applied and how is debated.

Liberal ideology says that free speech is utilized as a tool to spread misinformation and extremism, while conservatism suggests the left's stringent views have made it near impossible to speak one's minds, claiming that everything is overly censored in favor of being politically correct.

In truth, both sides are guilty of being selective when applying free speech, condemning the other side when it goes against their beliefs but remaining silent when it would reflect poorly on them. It's this attitude towards one another that makes open conversations elusive.

A hyperfocus on upholding a specific ideology and an unwillingness to hear anything to the contrary veers dangerously close to the North Carolina speaker ban from the 1960s, wherein the N.C. General Assembly banned communist speakers from speaking at the University. The speaker ban was ultimately repealed but it stands as a warning for where we could be headed if we do not begin to allow true open conversations in university classrooms.

This means making classrooms spaces where your beliefs are challenged, and being okay with that rather than taking it as a personal attack. Difficult and complex conversations can and should be uncomfortable without being cruel. If educational discourse is not safe in classrooms, where is it? 

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