Last week, members of Middlebury’s IntraVarsity Christian Fellowship hung posters across campus that sparked complex considerations of religion — “Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic or exactly who he said he was,” for example — in order to attract students to join in on group meetings. At the same time, an anonymous group of students, under the guise of the IntraVarsity Pastafarianism Fellowship, responded by hanging almost identically formatted posters, with headlines such as “Does the flying spaghetti monster care?”
For the most part, there was little backlash to the Pastafarian’s posters, a fact that may be indicative of a greater trend on this campus. At Middlebury, why does it seem more acceptable to belittle the efforts of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship than to mock other groups, especially those of minority status? For example, would the reaction have been different if the posters had mocked the Islamic Society or the Middlebury Open Queer Alliance?
Our campus appears to be an open space where students can be whoever they want without fear of judgment. But this may not be the case for all students, as these recent events have demonstrated.
Some may argue that in the United States, Christians have historically not faced the same level of oppression as other groups, be they religious, ethnic, racial, etc. While this may be true, should it really matter? Do Christians not deserve the same level of respect and sensitivity to their beliefs?
The intentions of the students who hung the Pastafarian posters are unclear. The task of reconciling the need for respect with the need for open and honest dialogue is admittedly a difficult one, but if the Pastafarian group’s aim was to spark dialogue, their goal was hindered by the group’s anonymity. Unlike the IntraVarsity Christian Group, which not only posed important and potentially controversial questions on their posters, but also kept the line of communication open by assuming responsibility, the format and tone of the Pastafarian posters was not one that effectively brought about constructive dialogue.
One of the best things about Middlebury students is their passion for issues of social and political significance. But passion should not lead to conformity of thought or condemning the views of those with whom we disagree.
Another explanation may connect to the overwhelming “liberal” outlook of our student body. Accordingly, many student interactions are among people who hold similar beliefs, and individuals are rarely confronted with the need to explain the reasoning behind their convictions. However, it is important to note that the term liberal describes ideological preference — “liberal” is not a synonym for “good,” and is certainly not interchangeable with tolerance. Therefore, the so-called “liberality” of the student body does not imply widespread acceptance of all viewpoints represented therein. Acceptance is often, though not exclusively, reserved for liberal beliefs.
For the most part, voices on campus perceived as liberal are unchallenged. However, it is important that we critically analyze arguments on both sides of the ideological spectrum, especially because Middlebury is not indicative of the nature of society in the United States as a whole — our campus is much more homogenous.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the fact that Middlebury is a left-leaning school. However, the purpose of education is not simply to reinforce our pre-existing convictions, but instead to open our minds to new ideas. After graduating, most of us will no longer live in a predominantly liberal bubble. Therefore, now is a good time to learn how to have constructive and respectful conversations with people who may disagree with us. There are bound to be many more of them in the future.
Simply agreeing with one “right” view while showing intolerance for the opinions of others is not a conversation; it is an echo chamber. Being progressive entails tolerance and openness to the possibility that one’s views may be wrong or that reasonable people can disagree without one being right and one being wrong.