Dialogue and Diversity of Thought

By Isabelle Stillman

At the activities fair a couple weeks ago, I was wandering the aisles of clubs and organizations when I spotted a friendly face behind the College Democrats table. In his typical outgoing fashion, this friend shouted to me that I should come join the College Democrats. I politely declined, and when asked why not, responded that I was already a College Republican. I then approached the adjoining table, that of Feminist Action at Middlebury (FAM), and asked the club’s representative about the organization. The representative answered my question briefly, but followed up her reply by saying, “I’m not sure this is the club for you.” In all honesty, I don’t remember what I said, if anything, but the representative then told me the next meeting’s topic was abortion, and therefore she didn’t know if I should be there. I wrote my name down on the email list and left.

This anecdote is not meant to launch a personal attack on the club member with whom I interacted, or to slander the organization as a whole (one of the co-leaders later profusely apologized to me for the incident). I also don’t mean to highlight this interaction to make a point about the contradiction between ideas that are “liberal” and supposedly open-minded, that manifest themselves in exclusive ways — that is a dead horse. Instead, I want to use this story to address the nature of dialogue and diversity of thought in Middlebury culture.

It is a sacred aspect of the Middlebury education that we are able and encouraged to form our own opinions and stances and to share them with our peers. Far more valuable than our mere ability to frame our ideas, however, is our capacity to express them respectfully and responsibly. To articulate ideas decently, dissent respectfully and argue maturely is one of the most important lessons we should learn from our experience in this prestigious liberal arts institution. We are encouraged to question our teachers and peers in class, to delve into topics about which we hold firm opinions and to speak up for issues that matter to us. But a great lesson has been by-passed if we Middlebury students, who fancy ourselves some of the most worldly, mature and intellectually elite college students in the country, have chosen instead to express our ideas with arrogance, self-righteousness and disrespect.

The privilege to think and speak freely is one that can be taken too far. Staunch and self-righteous in our own opinions, we act as though the articulation of our own opinions, however marginalizing and insulting they may be, comes before the attention to the beliefs and comfort of others.

There is a difference between agreeing with someone’s thoughts and disagreeing, yet respecting, their opinion. Though we will inevitably disagree, the only way we can consider ourselves intellectual and upstanding students and eventual members of the “real world” is if we can acknowledge and value the ideas of those around us.

As much as we tell others and ourselves that we appreciate and embrace diversity – though of course this is a topic to be debated as well – we neglect to recognize one of the most important aspects of diversity: diversity of thought. It is others’ thoughts, opinions and perspectives that have the strongest ability to broaden our own education and widen our outlook on the world in general and these that we must hear without assuming, labeling or belittling.

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