Tyranny of the Majority: Is There Enough Room For Dissenting Voices on Campus and in Classrooms?
When I was in my third semester at UAlbany, during a discussion of Evolution versus Creation, my Psychology professor dared anyone in the class of 500 students to argue with him about the fact that Creation is a myth. No one did. I wish I had. Ironically, when I went to see this professor in his office later that week, a large reproduction of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” hung behind his desk.
Why does this matter now?
We live in a postmodern, secular, pluralistic society, characterized by moral relativism (each individual can believe and decide what is “good” for him or herself), and this is especially true on university campuses such as our own, where we sit in classrooms, discussing what diversity, inclusion, tolerance, truth, morality, and humanity mean. Yet what I have learned in my academic classrooms is that tolerance is only reserved for those who believe what the majority of students, Americans, and yes, professors, believe. Interestingly enough, beyond the widely accepted definition of tolerance (“sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own”) is another: “the allowable deviation from a standard” (Merriam-Webster). What standard?
I am increasingly frustrated by our university’s statements of commitment to diversity, inclusion, and tolerance, only to be faced with anything but that when it is my turn to speak. I have learned that my beliefs are dismissed, if not attacked, from behind the academic lectern in the name of some universal truth, which, with the logic of relativism, actually shouldn’t exist. It seems strange to me that these relativistic individuals who appear to make up the majority of the University at Albany can handle just about any “truth,” except one that opposes their own. I have learned that I am allowed to disagree with you and your beliefs, but I must disagree silently, because I am in the minority that believes in a universal morality, justice, and truth. Disagreeing openly suggests that I judge you, and judgement indicates a standard of justice that you hold to.
Ironically, it is justice that marginalized Americans are crying out for, in this age of “rights”: equal rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, animal rights, bathroom rights, gun rights. Rights imply wrongs, do they not, and vice versa? Rights imply morality, do they not? Yet another standard.
This moral standard was never clearer to me than at a recent Student Association Senate meeting where senators discussed the issue of free speech versus hate speech. One senator spoke up and said, “if you are racist or sexist, you should not be allowed to speak.” Are we now so fearful of having our own beliefs questions that we must shut out another’s voice to remain comfortable? Either those who disagree must both be silent, or they must both speak, but we can’t have it either way. Many of us can agree that racism and sexism are “bad,” and “wrong,” but what higher authority can we call on to enact a fair judgment when morality and truth are relative to each individual? If morality depends on you and me, then why isn’t it working? Why are we in the mess that we are in? Because we are imperfect? Because we are human? To whose standard are we holding ourselves against when we say we are imperfect? Why does being “human” excuse our imperfection? We are not becoming better as human beings; we are simply calling our wrongdoing by another name: tolerance.
Since the introduction of “alternative facts” into our national vocabulary, much of America seems to be invoking this evasive concept called “truth,” that each individual claims to have, and yet no one seems able to define. Sociologist Peter Berger stated that “pluralism breathes a philosophical relativism in which the average person stands confused as to whether any single voice among the contending options lays claim to the truth.” The very statement that “all truth (or morality) is relative” denies the existence of an absolute while in the process of positing that very thing. Truth is something must deeper, much more complex than “facts.” The search for its substance drives human existence, human endeavor, and human education. Despite us claiming to hold to relativistic beliefs, despite us claiming that pluralism produces diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance, why is it that in our own diverse, inclusive and tolerant university, we are being told what is acceptable to believe and say in a public forum? Novelist and poet Oscar Wilde says it best: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person; give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Will we ever come to a place where we acknowledge our obsessive search for truth, and allow it to take off our masks? Is that not the very purpose of a university education?