Why refusing to hear opposing view points makes you suck

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, May 25, 2016, 3:30 PM | comments: 1

When I was in college, there was a gentleman named Larry Simpson, who was appointed the director of multicultural affairs. My understanding is that he passed away from a brain tumor some years after I graduated, and that's sad, but I remember many of my conversations with him very vividly.

Ashland University was, as you might expect, a fairly conservative place in terms of its politics, and its political science department in particular, despite constant denial, was extremely right leaning. Larry was heavily involved in residence life (I was an RA for two years), so as part of our training, it wasn't unusual to have him speak to us. What was interesting, however, was that he was the first black Republican I had ever met. Even in the early 90's, the party wasn't exactly inclusive. Imagine my surprise (not to mention that of the minorities in the res life staff) when Larry told us that he though affirmative action was wrong and unnecessary. His argument against it was sound and logical, and the only reason I could rationally disagree with him was that his argument was predicated on ideal conditions. (Sidebar: This tends to be why I can't fully back ideologies from either extreme... they make too many assumptions about context.)

Larry took his share of shit from others. One of the black residents on my floor candidly told me that he thought Larry was a "sellout." Honestly, that statement made me really uncomfortable at first, because I liked Larry even if I disagreed with him, but the resident had a very different perspective about racial identity and social classes. His family struggled in poverty, and it was ultimately a wrestling scholarship that brought him to the university. Having originally grown up in an inner-city neighborhood, not really seeing color, and not really knowing how rough it probably was at the time, this was likely the first time that I realized that race wasn't the only issue that challenged people, but also social class and economic status. Indeed, our perspectives are very heavily influenced with our experiences. If Larry's story was vastly different (it was), then it makes sense that his perspective would be different. Race alone did not define his experience.

And that brings me to Oberlin College, just 35 miles to the north. It was a school even then where, as Larry put it, "Their minds are so open there that their brains might fall out." A feature written in The New Yorker (if you can get beyond its pretentiousness and ridiculous writing style guide) talks about the activism on-campus for... something "better." The truth is that I don't entirely get what it is that the students are after other than for college to be easier. I get the concerns around the politics of racial identity, conformity, "the man," and all of that. These are not new issues. I'm frustrated with the move from quiet, private expression of "-ism's" to the very public and implied convictions of the same variety. ("Make America White, er, Great Again!") These are struggles that we still deal with today, and while I believe there is progress, I'm not naive enough to think that these are solved problems.

What strikes me about this piece, and other incidents at other colleges is this complete bullshit notion of having "safe spaces" where you don't have to hear anything that may offend you or cause you to disagree. This isn't liberalism at all. This is exactly what the right has been engaging in for decades, and it isn't any better. If you want to seclude yourself in an echo chamber for a big group hug, nothing changes. College is supposed to expose you to as much knowledge as possible, and some of that comes from things that make you uncomfortable. Suck it up and deal with it, because it doesn't get easier after college.

Let me make it clear, I'm not suggesting that it's OK to tolerate a little racism. But uncomfortable history? Learn about it. Unpopular opinions? Hear them, and understand where they come from, even if you don't agree. Isolation from these things is hypocrisy at its worst, and likely the very thing that you're rallying against.

I would think that over time, any individual, based on more experience and more data, would become more and more moderate, and less likely to adhere to rigid ideologies. There's too much nuance in life. But it seems the opposite happens. People get less flexible and more entrenched over time. We've gotta stop being like that.

I thought Larry Simpson was kind of full of crap when I was in college. It's funny how much I learned from him anyway.



October 25, 2016, 1:16 AM #

Today I found a bunch of wonderful notes I shared with Larry Simpson and that made me "google" him. I am shocked and so sorry to hear that he has passed. He was a really nice guy - I worked with him on admissions at Ashland University. He made me smile a lot today. Lucky us who knew him.

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