Since their inception, colleges have been a staging ground for civil discourse of all kinds. Students and professors alike seize the opportunity to develop their ideas and points of view with fellow academics. Historically, these conversations have pushed us forward as a society. From the anti-apartheid divestment movement in the 1970’s to the current fossil fuel divestment campaign at GW, college students have consistently proven the power of discourse and the strength of their voice. If these conversations consisted only of non-controversial topics and conformed to the status quo, growth would never occur. Allowing for controversial discussion without infringing upon human rights of any individual is key in creating a campus environment that promotes education and critical thinking.
But what does it mean to be controversial? Where is the line drawn between promoting inaccurate and harmful information and simply holding an opinion that differs from the norm? Controversial discourse should center around developing opinions about multi-sided topics such as the legalization of marijuana. It should not, however, center around personal opinions on who does or does not deserve basic human rights. There is a divide between topics like defunding police, how to prevent climate change, free post-secondary education, and arguments about what rights minority groups deserve. If the idea of controversial discourse is to generate positive change within a society, these discussions should be centered around ideas with room for growth, not ideas that could lead to detrimental and unethical outcomes for marginalized groups.
Take Kaitlyn Bennet for example. Allowing someone like her to spread hateful rhetoric on a campus does not promote education or political discourse, but rather silences and threatens the existence of marginalized student groups. On the other hand, someone like Robert Spencer, who holds offensive positions about religions such as Islam, does not actively deny the rights of individuals based on their practices and beliefs. His opinions, while controversial, do not deny anyone the rights guaranteed to them as human beings.
If a speaker discusses only controversial topics with the ability to push civic and social change, then it is beneficial to allow for this discourse on campuses. Many people are raised in a theoretical bubble. They hear the same opinions and arguments at their kitchen table from the time they are born until they decide to leave. However, many never choose to leave their home let alone to seek out new information or challenge their preconceived ideas of the world. It is for this reason that being forced to encounter ideas so vastly different from oneself’s is crucial. Both the ideals of democracy and humanity involve compromise. Education may not always change someone’s opinion, but it will almost always push them closer to compromise, or at the very least empathy.
These ideas of understanding and compromise in the real world apply directly to the community GWU claims to cultivate. As a school that strives to educate a diverse set of future leaders, GWU should encourage controversial conversations to happen on their campus. Such discussion will allow students to grow past their personal opinions and to understand the perspectives of those who surround them.