Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
I am terrified of controversy. I’ll admit, that’s a bit of a weird confession for an opinion columnist — but I’m not alone. According to a 2020 study, 62 percent of students found their college campuses prevented people from being comfortable enough to express their beliefs.
Unfortunately, this is a trend that’s also present at the University of Maryland. I have some friends who just don’t feel comfortable publically broadcasting their opinions. But I think this becomes an even more serious issue if it’s a certain “type” of student who is afraid to consistently share their opinions. Recently, the College Republicans president noted in an interview that her organization has been a crutch to students who are afraid to speak up.
In order to begin understanding the world around us, we need to start with accepting our campus community. This involves listening and responding to opposing opinions, even if it’s scary to do. Excluding racist, sexist or xenophobic perspectives, it’s crucial to at least try to hear out other people’s opinions. College should be a place for evolution and personal development, and that should include development through the experiences and observations of others.
If one part of the student body doesn’t share their opinions, the rest of us miss out on quality discussions and the opportunity to understand those who are different from us. I’ve seen a distinct lack of non-liberal opinions from students in my government courses. Sure, professors will outline conservative or libertarian beliefs in lectures, but unless peers speak up and voice their support for these ideas, it’s easy to dismiss unpopular ideas or mischaracterize them as strange views held by slimy politicians on Fox News.
This is a big issue. There are clearly students at this university who hold non-liberal or widely unsupported opinions. But, they’re still worthy of attention and thought because the people who hold them are members of our community and should be entitled to the same respect. Treating others with kindness should not be contingent on how similar someone’s beliefs are to your own.
Avoiding uncomfortable opinions doesn’t make them go away. Instead, they fester and become more intense. When people can’t discuss their thoughts around a range of people in a normal space, they do so where their beliefs are unlikely to be challenged. And in those fringe communities, what starts as genuine questions about the boundary between international borders and human rights could easily turn into xenophobia or more dangerous beliefs.
Even if an opinion is wholly unpalatable, it might be important to understand how that person came to such an unfavorable position. Some people have been using the ideas from the book Whiteshift to understand recent trends in nationalism and naked anti-multiculturalism. Written by political scientist Eric Kaufmann, it contains some pretty wild concepts, such as justifying white Americans’ fear of multiculturalism. Even though this idea is problematic, there are definitely some people who feel this way. It’s crucial to understand why people hold these nationalistic and right-wing beliefs if the problem is ever going to be addressed.
Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t to say that we should allow hateful or dangerous language to permeate our safe learning spaces. Of course the student body should continue to shut down racist, sexist and homophobic opinions. If opinions verge into that area, they need to be quickly shut down. However, the point of college is partially to expose us to larger communities than the cities or towns we come from. And in bigger places, there isn’t really an expectation of a safe space.
Encouraging students to share and constantly rethink their opinions will contribute to a richer learning environment that represents all students and allows us to learn from each other. We need to get over our collective fear of being canceled and focus on using our campus as an educational resource to keep developing our communication and reasoning. This will help us become better critical thinkers and equip us to interact with all sorts of people in our post-college lives.
Jessica Ye is a freshman government and politics and mechanical engineering major. She can be reached at email@example.com.