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I’m Sophia Rosenfeld. I teach history at the University of Pennsylvania. You’ve probably been hearing that campuses are up in arms surrounding the discussion of the war in Palestine and Israel. That there’s panic and chaos in every direction.
In fact, what you’ve been reading isn’t the full story. And I do think that rather than condemn universities as places where the kids can’t get it right and the teachers can’t either, universities actually offer something of a model for how to talk about difficult and fraught issues.
This fall, I’ve been teaching a course on the history and theory of free speech and censorship. What happened, of course, is that a war in a far off place Gaza, Israel, came to shape our conversations on campus in a very particular way.
Not only did students very rightly become engaged in thinking about this issue, but outside forces swept in too.
So it seemed, in a way, an odd situation to be discussing free speech with students who were sort of experiencing its changing contours all around them. We could have put this to the side and tried to just keep the real world out of the classroom and gotten back to our nice, 17th and 18th century texts. But, in fact, it seemed like there was an elephant in the room and we needed to address it.
What I think is really important is for students to learn in a sense how to think with history. Not to just think about the past, but apply it in various ways to the present. I don’t ask students generally, “How do you feel about this?” I ask them, for instance, “What would John Milton, radical poet and the author of the first great defense for unlicensing printers,” which we would call free speech, “what would Milton have said about the possibility of banning hate speech in the public sphere or on campus?”
And then we go from there. I saw students engaging in thoughtful conversations with each other. I saw students in my classroom sitting with other students with whom they didn’t necessarily agree politically. What I did not see is thousands of students screaming at each other in public spaces or defacing each other’s property and unable to maintain friendships across political divides. I did not see poisonous anger. And I did not see incredible fear.
I actually found when students came to talk to me what they often said was, “I’m looking for ways to talk about this with people. I’m not sure what I believe. I want to have a conversation with my friend, but I don’t want to offend her and say something that might be hurtful as we discuss our opinions.” I found the students searching and probing and looking for ways to talk to each other. And I think that’s how, in a sense, we might all think about how to broach conversations in difficult moments, whether that’s across the proverbial Thanksgiving dinner table or in the public sphere.
And I don’t want to minimize in any way how difficult it is to talk about the war, especially with people with whom you disagree. It’s emotional. It’s political. It’s moral.
And people’s temperatures rise very quickly. I’m not saying they weren’t often difficult. I’m not saying that they weren’t hurtful sometimes. But what we learn in universities is that it’s OK to ask very tough questions. To sometimes make arguments that are way out there. I think it’s a habit of thinking that a student can develop, not just in a history classroom, but that you can take into life.
You should say what you mean and be direct about it. And the other person has a certain obligation to hear you. And ideally, respond to what you’ve just said as a position with which they can engage. It shouldn’t be about, “You don’t know because” or “that’s not a genuine feeling” or “how dare you say that” or “where have your morals gone?”
You say something along the lines of, “I hear you saying this, here’s where I find points of disagreement. Here’s why I disagree.” You don’t have to actually end up agreeing. I mean, we’re not looking for consensus. We live in a very boring world. If people had such similar experiences that they all ended up on the same page.
Our pluralism is one of the wonderful things about our democracy. But a pluralism can’t be just a lot of warring factions either. We need some sense of solidarity with each other. So maybe you agree to disagree, but you agree on some principle that lies at the heart of your disagreement. Or maybe you agree about the moral stakes, even if you disagree about what the political fallout should be.
This takes us back to Milton in the middle of the 17th century, which would sound like a pretty obscure place to be talking about today. But let me say this, Milton had one very interesting idea, that we don’t ever know what’s true without testing it. And you can’t test your ideas without letting them run, ram straight into other ideas. And if you put yourself in a cocoon intellectually, you have no way of testing the validity of what you’re thinking or saying. You have no way of knowing what a good argument against it might even be. And sometimes, you might come out of that kind of combat even more confirmed in the sense that you’re right. And that’s fine. But if you don’t test them at all and you stay in your tiny little world and you block everybody who doesn’t agree with you immediately, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to think more expansively.
If I want to get all rhetorical and fancy about this, I would say democracies need very few basic principles. One of them is some kind of commitment to truth. A second is some kind of agreement about the rules of engagement, whether that’s in conversation or in elections. And third and last, maybe most importantly, democracies require some kind of solidarity with others. Some sense that people’s fates matter to each other. If you can keep that sense of norms alive, it’s a very nice groundwork, I think, on which let 1,000 different opinions bloom.