Feeling Offended? It’s Good for You

“Challenging the accepted way of thinking should not be approached with scornful or condescending disdain, but with a desire to engage and challenge the dissenting opinion.”

Earlier this month, Michelle Sheng of the Michigan Daily published a cartoon that depicts a member of the Michigan Review staff tabling for the upcoming February 23rd debate between writer and feminist advocate Julie Bindel and journalist/self-proclaimed anti-feminist, Milo Yiannopoulos. In this cartoon, the individual who is tabling for the event is labeled as a “meninist busker”, who holds “repugnant and backwards social views”. It can be assumed that these labels are directly linked to one of the event’s headliners: Milo Yiannopoulos. This depiction takes a critical misstep, however, by attributing the perceived opinions of anti-feminists to members of the Michigan Review staff.

Facilitating the free expression of opinion through open debate is hardly an endorsement of one speaker’s words.

Debates about freedom of speech have raged across college campuses in recent months.
Debates about freedom of speech have raged across college campuses in recent months. (Photo Credit: ThinkStock)

Facilitating the free expression of opinion through open debate is hardly an endorsement of one speaker’s words. Even if there is validity in Sheng’s generalizations, it cannot be construed as representative of the thoughts and opinions of an individual supporting the event. After all, the debate is between two individuals and Sheng’s one sided cartoon only acknowledges one of those voices.

Aside from this misattribution, Sheng’s disparaging response to someone with differing views aims to belittle the individual, thus avoiding engagement with their beliefs. This tactic of demonizing those with dissenting thoughts and opinions is often used to avoid engagement with the ideas themselves.

This knee-jerk, derisive response towards the facilitation and expression of differing perspectives is not an uncommon occurrence in places where one would assume open discourse would be encouraged. Late last year, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email to students, advising them to not wear insensitive or offensive Halloween costumes. Faculty member, Erika Christakis, sent out an email to members of the student body challenging this statement by the school, calling into question whether students should be prevented from expressing themselves—even if the costumes could be seen as offensive or unsettling. As a result of voicing a dissenting opinion, Christakis was met with an onslaught of insults, epithets, and calls for her to resign from her position as associate master of Yale’s Silliman College.

Similar backlash occurs every year as schools and student organizations invite individuals to speak to the student body. In 2014, after Rutgers invited former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, to speak at their commencement ceremony, the university was decried by the student body for inviting a supposed “war criminal” who was unfit to address the graduating class. Unable to overcome their ideological drive to vilify Rice, students espousing these views in protest prevented Rice from speaking, and missed out on the opportunity to engage with the wisdom and unique perspectives of the first female African-American Secretary of State. More recently, Williams College student, Zachary Wood has been slandered with racial epithets such as ‘Uncle Tom’ and accused of being sexist and promoting violent ideologies for his work in inviting controversial speakers to campus. Recent invitees include anti-feminist Suzanne Venker and writer John Derbyshire. Wood invites these individuals to speak at Williams College through his group, Uncomfortable Learning, as a means of challenging the commonly held beliefs of students and faculty, and to allow students to confront these controversial speakers on their thoughts by engaging in constructive discourse. This is an admirable model of engagement with diverse ideas that should be encouraged and it is deplorable that Wood is being attacked for promoting free expression and open and engaged discourse.

Challenging accepted ways of thinking should not be approached with scornful or condescending disdain, but with a desire to engage and challenge the dissenting opinion. It is with this engagement that one can hope to gain new insights on their own position and views, or potentially alter their worldly perspectives. If all opinions that prompted disagreement invoked derision toward the individual that expressed the idea, rather than the idea itself, then little progress would be made on any issue. A culture of negativity would develop in place of a free and open marketplace of ideas and individual expression would be stifled. Instead, let’s encourage diverse opinions to be heard, challenged and engaged with. Ideas that prompt aversion facilitate discussion of thoughts and ideas that offer alternate viewpoints. Only then can we hope to broaden our perspectives and nuance our understanding of the world around us.  

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About Cole Carnick

Cole is a senior at the University of Michigan, studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of The Michigan Review. He can be contacted at carnick@umich.edu, or on Twitter @ColeCarnick.