Why academic debate has gone dismally downhill

Political correctness has fostered needless intolerance.

The act of thinking has become a dangerous game. These days, you would never know that we actually enjoy a good debate; half the time, we can’t stop accusing each other of ignorance to have a proper conversation. Hop online, where anonymity and mob mentality reign supreme, and the expression of divergent opinions, especially regarding race, gender, ethnicity, politics, sex and the like, can make one a target for annihilation.

Such was the case at Wesleyan University in Connecticut last week, in which the student government voted to slice the school newspaper’s funding for having published criticism on the Black Lives Matter movement — a prime example of hypersensitive stifling in an academic setting.

Although it’s obvious that people love to tear each other down, I’d like to think that there’s a slightly more civil reason than this for why we’re always so sensitive to a challenge of thinking.

One conclusion that Sarah Niedoba of The Globe and Mail put forth in a recent article is that, in universities, the conflict stems from groups whose viewpoints differ, and whose viewpoints are inabile to coexist. The author’s theory makes a lot of sense, especially if you consider the role of personal values.

We live in an age where common societal values have been defined through the process of political correctness; we have a society with a desire to respect and treat everyone in a fair, understanding way. Subsequently, we take great pains to ensure that we do not offend anyone.

In our attempts to accept all peoples, we have become, ironically, intolerant.

The real conflict arises when we try to insert our personal beliefs into the process, which may or may not fit the politically correct mould. Nothing changes the fact that there is no universally accepted position on any issue; we remain divided by our personal viewpoints, and this division breeds automatic sensitivity because it draws us as individuals into the issue.

Political correctness has only implemented a standard of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in thinking. Those who choose to approach issues differently than the socially accepted way are not only frowned upon, but also viewed as incorrect and closed-minded. Take the abortion debate, for example: pro-lifers in the Lower Mainland face constant criticism from our dominant progressive society for their supposedly ‘callous’ beliefs.

On the other hand, those who agree with the norm are often criticized by ‘viewers of the alternative’ as impractical and narrow-minded. Our sense of openness and encouragement has long disappeared, and we are no longer a population that desires to expand our thinking. In our attempts to accept all peoples, we have become, ironically, intolerant.

Is there a quick fix for this issue? Unfortunately, no. What we should focus on, however, is keeping open minds.

As we decide which matters are black and white and which are in shades of gray, we cannot be afraid to question others’ opinions, and to step in and out of the bounds of political correctness for the sake of discovery.

Similarly, we must not criticise those who do the same. This does not excuse rudeness or disrespect, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t have your own strong opinions — it simply requires allowing others to have opinions, and to seek to understand before you judge.

The motivation behind the creation of universities as institutions was, in part, meant to encourage learning and the widening of our perspectives. As fellow students, we can’t let that goal escape us. The next time you encounter someone who opposes what you think, pause before letting your academically fueled indignation loose. Having different opinions is okay.

Unconvinced? Let’s just agree to disagree.