A fateful fear of conflict

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Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means. – Ronald Reagan

Just like that, their opinion of me had changed. Just like that, I went from being recognized amongst my peers for my academic accomplishments to being identified by my political stance. What one student had blurted about me in front of the class shifted everyone’s perspective of me. This event took place during my junior year of high school as current President Donald Trump and former First Lady Hillary Clinton were campaigning for their spot as the President of the United States. My conservative stance posed as a stark contrast to that of the majority of my classmates and teachers. Never did I think, however, that my personal beliefs would lead to a year’s worth of insults, impertinence and outright impudent behavior from a teacher I had deeply admired and from students I had believed to be my friends, or at least friendly acquaintances.

I am not here to write about the distressing and rather dismal memories of my junior year. Instead, I am writing to raise awareness about the magnifying divide between political parties and the mounting inability of individuals in each party to listen to their counterparts. Since when has an opposing view or belief driven two friends apart? Since when has a mere conflict of interest between two people masked their ability to listen to not only each other, but to anyone associated with the “other side”? Since when has it been acceptable to silence the voices of a minority to appease the feelings of a majority?

The great thinkers, the great doers, the great leaders of past and present generations got to where they were because they were not afraid of their opponent. They were not afraid of the opposing view, of the difference of opinion, of the diversity of thought. Unfortunately, this fearlessness to face those with competing opinions to one’s own is increasingly rare.

We cannot equate a presence of conflict and contention with an absence of peace and preservation.

In an NPR TED Radio Hour podcast released in July of this year, journalist and radio host Guy Raz interviewed four individuals and questioned them about the expanding presence of and call for safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses. By definition, a safe space is a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism or potentially threatening actions, ideas or conversations. Equivalently, a trigger warning is a statement that cautions content—such as a text, video or class—that may be disturbing or upsetting to its viewers.

Each speaker presented an intriguing opinion towards the topic; moreover, not a single one vouched for more safe spaces or trigger warnings. Zachary Wood—author of Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America—provided an enlightening take on the need to listen to those whose views may rival our own.

“By engaging with controversial and defensive ideas, we can find a common ground. If not with the speakers themselves, then with the audiences they attract or indoctrinate,” said Wood.

Wood—who is an African American advocate for allowing people of opposite and even hateful opinions to speak on campuses—believes that engaging with the other side not only fosters open discussion but also furnishes a stronger understanding of our own beliefs and perspective. With more and more minorities pursuing postsecondary education as first generation college students, Wood understands their fears about allowing highly controversial speakers to come to the university. Despite the fact that many of them have faced adversity and bigotry for most of their lives, Wood still maintains that in order to build resilience, all individuals must engage with those they may disagree with or even fear.

“When I look at the thinkers I admire, from the founding fathers to Martin Luther King, Jr., I would say that they always engaged with the people they disagreed with the most even when it was difficult for them to do so,” Wood said. “When you look at free speech and the history of free speech in this country, it has been free speech itself that allowed the abolitionist movement to the women’s suffrage movement to the civil rights movement to be successful. That’s what allowed those dissenting opinions to be aired and re-aired and to apply social pressure on government in ways that led to positive social change.”

In like manner, Turkish-British novelist and women’s rights activist Elif Shafak argues that a society without the freedom of speech or expression is a society stripped of its democracy. Coming from a country that prosecutes individuals who speak against those in power, Shafak understands the severity of living in a world in which one is afraid to openly converse. Her experience has enabled her to approach the United States and other countries that provide free speech protection with a different perspective than those born with the privilege of free expression.

“I think we should be offended less. We should be able to listen to people who have a completely different view of the world,” said Shafak.

Holding a comparable view to both Shafak and Wood, American reporter James Kirchick recognizes the amplified sensitivity of today’s public. The push for safe spaces and trigger warnings at universities is a product of individuals’ inability to hear the opposite view for fear it will hurt their own feelings. When asked whether universities should allow anybody to speak on their campus and whether students need to hear viewpoints that may incite challenging emotions, Kirchick had a simple yet compelling response.

“Because that’s life. We have a president who triggers challenging emotions among many of us on a daily basis. You can’t avoid it. You’re going to encounter people who disagree with you. Learning how to deal with people who disagree with you… is a fundamental part of [college],” said Kirchick.

Learning how to deal with those who disagree with you is a fundamental part of not only college but life. A future employer will not grant an avid Bernie Sanders supporter a safe space because a fellow employee voted for President Trump, or vice versa. They are not going to provide you with a trigger warning every time the company does something that may cause you to feel anxious or upset.

Ultimately, we are living in an era in which our emotions are driving our decisions. We cannot live in fear of our opponents. We cannot silence those who disagree in order to remain secure in our own views. We cannot equate a presence of conflict and contention with an absence of peace and preservation. After all, the persistent attacks on my character, perpetual critiques on my upbringing and seemingly blatant bullying that began the day I was outed as a conservative in a predominantly liberal area—Sonoma County—did not produce a broken, beaten down teenager afraid to speak against the popular opinion. Rather, it resulted in an unyielding passion for defending my own beliefs while honoring those of others. Today, I choose to speak proudly and listen sincerely as that is what this country was founded on and continues to pride itself on.

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