Reaching for reason

March 5, 2012, 3:02 a.m.
Reaching for reason
Stanford Students for Reason is a new student-led organization that aims to give voice to non-mainstream student viewpoints regarding both campus-wide and national issues. (AUBRIE LEE/The Stanford Daily)

“Once you leave the Stanford bubble, there is real discrimination,” said Mala Chatterjee ’14, co-founder of Stanford Students for Reason (SSR), a new student-led organization aimed at giving voice to uncommon viewpoints on campus about local and national issues.

“[Right now, students] won’t even have any of the requisite skills to deal with discrimination or to try and combat it,” she said, explaining her belief that a one-sided, mostly liberal Stanford atmosphere shelters students from having to craft original, convincing arguments and stifles those who hold unpopular views.

According to Chatterjee, SSR seeks to help students develop the skills of argumentation necessary to effectively support their views in the face of opposition.

The club’s first meeting took place on Jan. 23. Co-founders Chatterjee and Ian Ball ’14 estimate that a group of 25 attended. After the success of this initial meeting, the club has met nearly every Monday night in the Nitery building to discuss topics ranging from childhood obesity to the sanctity of life. Each meeting begins with a topic and then functions as an open forum for participants to express their views. A student moderator keeps the conversation in check and leads each discussion.

Mayukh Sen ’14, Public Relations representative of SSR, described his future hopes for the club.

“As the overall level of discourse increases, we want to invite students from groups,” Sen said.

The club also hopes to organize debates on various controversial topics and bring in professors to speak at meetings.

Ball first noticed a need for the club last year during the campus-wide debate over the return of ROTC. Ball said he found it difficult to express his position that ROTC should return.

“Many saw this as a personal attack and felt personally offended, and I think that impeded discourse [on] a topic which was important to discuss,” he said.

Daniel Noé ’14, SSR web content manager, had a similar experience debating ROTC’s return to campus in his freshman dorm.

“Things got particularly ugly when the huge ROTC debate hit the campus,” he wrote in an email to The Daily. “It became apparent to us that there was a problem with the way intellectual discourse was being handled on campus, and that’s how the idea for the club came about.”

Chatterjee and Ball said they view the obstacles they faced in discussing ROTC as symptomatic of a larger issue with discourse at Stanford, ultimately relating to a perceived suppression of more conservative views on campus.

Chatterjee said she believes that students who do not hold the common liberal positions for certain topics keep quiet and do not share their opinions with others, a sentiment Ball agrees with, and finds particularly problematic.

“When people are not exposed to alternative viewpoints, they aren’t able to rationally defend their position,” Ball said.

“[On issues such as minimum wage and gay marriage], a lot of people on campus have this gut reaction,” Ball said. “[Yet] they never have to defend themselves because whenever they hear the opposition they walk away and say that it is offensive.”

Ball and Chatterjee decided to channel their frustrations to change the way students approach controversial topics at Stanford through SSR. Both students have backgrounds in philosophy and debate to help them moderate SSR discussions.

“I got interested in philosophy really early on, when I was about 11 or 12, and I took my first philosophy course,” Chatterjee wrote in an email to The Daily.

“When I was younger, I’d basically just read philosophy on my own and try and find independent study or summer courses,” she added.

Ball was on his high school’s parliamentary debate team, which helped him learn to form and scrutinize arguments.

With their skills and passion for the art of debate, the duo is trying to facilitate discovery through the exchange of opinions on topics discussed in club meetings.

“The idea was to try and create an environment where people can have controversial conversations and have different types of views and [not just] present the most popular position at Stanford so that people don’t get offended or take things personally, but rather learn,” Chatterjee said.

The club also aims to influence the focus of discourse on campus by showing student interest groups how to critically analyze their chosen causes to better include and address non-mainstream viewpoints.

“A lot of these liberal causes seem to misdirect [student] attention,” Ball said.

The overarching goal of SSR is to raise topics that are usually avoided. The group hopes to serve as the figurative person who brings up both religion and politics at the dinner table of Stanford discourse — in the process making space for others to do the same.

“I think there are real battles [at Stanford] that we should deal with. It is not as if we live in this color blind, perfectly tolerant society” Ball said. “I think [intolerance] is present, but we are afraid to confront it.”

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