The obstruction of freedom, part 2

Opinion by Adam Johnson
April 9, 2013, 1:30 a.m.

In a recent column, I wrote about how the administration – through recent policies ranging from banning double-booked policies to taking over student-run eating clubs – has failed to respect the student freedom that Leland and Jane Stanford envisioned when founding this University. I argued that freedom of expression is not only crucial for optimizing our Stanford experience, but for inculcating a reverence for liberty that will serve the nation and world as we enter roles in government, law, business, education, tech and more.

One oft-mentioned adversary of freedom of expression is structural authority – the “man” or, in the case of my previous piece, the Stanford administration. The “man” is an easy target; it is often a highly bureaucratic other that offers concrete actions – wars, tax hikes, police brutality – that can spark resistance. In this sense, my first piece was relatively easy to write; not only was there a slew of recent and well publicized administrative decisions from which to draw from, but there were many students and alumni whom I knew would be sympathetic to the cause.

Today I write about a new target, a group that obstructs freedom of expression as much or more than our administration. This time, the target is no longer removed from us. It is us.

While Stanford may foster diversity of class, color, and creed, it does a poor job fostering diversity of thought. In terms of political ideology, Stanford students predictably lean left. Just how many students lean left, though, is staggering; for every thirteen Stanford students who voted for President Obama in the last election, only one student voted for Mitt Romney.

It is sometimes said that, when one is in an academic gathering, a common assumption is that all the strangers in the room vote Democrat. According to the Stanford exit poll data, you can safely make that assumption until eleven people are gathered, at which point it is more likely that there will be at least one Romney voter present. If we wanted to ensure (with 95% certainty) that there is at least one person who identifies as either “conservative” or “very conservative,” we would need a gathering with at least fifty-two people.

As if this were not lopsided enough already, many of Stanford’s conservatives end up not voicing their opinions – especially in regards to social issues – due to being vastly outnumbered. When was the last time you met an open Republican? When was the last time someone in class defended a socially conservative policy? Although perhaps no one is technically stopping these people from speaking their minds, there exists a strong social pressure to conform to the ideals of the left.

I can attest to this firsthand. Some of my previous pieces have argued for stances that, though they may go against the grain here, are firmly in the moderate camp. Yet the criticism I received on campus was astounding. I have been called “the single most disturbing obstacle to progress and positive change in this world” and my work has been labeled as “unresearched drivel” and “completely unfounded.” And this is only the public commentary; I can only wonder what is expressed in private.

Again, these are pieces that were fairly moderate – my resistance to the phrase “only whites can be racist,” my opinion that we should not let concepts of “male privilege” obstruct the fact that males face very real problems of their own, my criticism of how current divestment campaigns oversimplify a complex issue. And yet as soon as I threatened the sacred cows many here hold dear, I was met with considerable resistance. This resistance, I suspect, is grounded not so much in the ideas themselves, but in the fact that someone dared to publicly express them.

The reaction I received was understandable, since scores of students and faculty are trapped in “echo chambers” where they hear their own views reflected and amplified. Consciously or not, most of us seek out like-minded peers rather than those with whom disagree. This leads to a sociological phenomenon Cass Sunstein labels “the law of group polarization,” wherein individuals in a similarly-minded group will, after deliberation, move further towards the extreme on the topic discussed. Entertaining conflicting opinions soon becomes unthinkable (“I can’t even…”). Opposing ideas are dismissed, often harshly. The intellectual vigor of healthy debate is lost and, if there is any truth in this world, we are all less likely to reach it.

I am willing to publicly oppose this polarization and break the silence, even if it means risking my social reputation. Many students I have talked to are not willing to make that choice, and even I have moments where I will bite my tongue.

For shame. We embrace diversity, save when it comes to diversity of thought. We value freedom, except when it comes to the freedom to disagree. There was a time when those on the left valued free speech, and for good reason; freedom of expression is one of the pinnacles of a vibrant intellectual sphere and good governance.

As Mill wrote in On Liberty, “Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.” Let us take Mill’s words to heart. Let us give voice to those who are not heard, even if we believe them to be false. Let us abandon dogma, embrace dissent, and submit our own opinions to reason and resistance. Let us hold freedom of expression not as a privilege of the majority, but a right provided to all on equal terms. We will all be better off for it.

Want to voice your thoughts to Adam? Email him at [email protected]

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.

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