Looking for understanding rather than intolerance

Earlier this week, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof called "A Confession of Liberal Intolerance." In the piece, Kristof writes about the notion that academia is big on diversity but only when it fits a liberal mindset. He cites examples of conservative-leaning and/or evangelical Christian faculty members who feel uncomfortable expressing their viewpoints within an academic institution. And then there are some quantitative statistics that support these stories, which just add fuel to the fire.

While I found the article disturbing, I wasn't surprised. Working in a university, I witness this all the time. I overhear comments made by faculty members. I see students react when another student speaks about Christianity in a personal way. I experience my own reactions when I hear something that contradicts what I believe to be "the truth." We talk a lot in higher education about microaggressions, small insults that we typically associate with historically oppressed peoples, however, I hear plenty of microaggressions flying at Christians and conservatives as well.

One could argue that Christians and conservatives are part of the dominant culture and that microaggressions towards them are just "righting a biased, oppressive system," but I'm not sure that it's the most effective or forward-thinking way of calibrating a system. When I was an undergraduate and just starting to embark on the long, never-ending journey of confronting my own privilege and becoming more mindful about social justice, a facilitator in a training session said that a person's perception is their reality. My perception of what's happening to me and around me is my reality. Regardless of what someone tells me is happening, if I can't perceive it, it's tough to embrace it as my reality. I may adamantly disagree with how someone is perceiving the exact same situation, but I can't tell them to experience it differently. They are having their own experience that is informed by their own context. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people across the political continuum don't understand this. And as a result, we see it play out on college campuses the way that Kristof highlights in his article and in countless other situations that dominate the news right now.

We have become a culture of backlashers. We have a very hard time agreeing to disagree because we experience that as a loss of power rather than as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of another's position. There's value in considering someone else's viewpoint. Knowing the "enemy" is better than not knowing the enemy. And I've learned quite a bit from thinking through the other side of an argument. It sharpens my own position.

None of this is meant to dilute the action that I want taken against the policies and positions that I disagree with, but I do think that we need to be careful about having a double standard when it comes to thinking through personal viewpoints, particularly on college campuses where we supposedly guarantee academic freedom of thought. Viewpoints are viewpoints. It's when viewpoints become legislation that we have problems.