Allegheny students should learn to accept different beliefs

We have a serious problem at Allegheny.

After nearly four years I’ve experienced the most prevalent controversies within the student body, from blackface on Halloween to orgasms in the chapel. But I’m writing today to draw attention to another problem our community faces, one seldom understood.

You may have noticed an email from President Mullen last week declaring the winners of this year’s Civility Prize. In part, the email stated, “Allegheny College continues to take the lead in reminding the nation’s elected officials that meaningful civility…is compatible with even the most strongly held beliefs.” Unfortunately, the history of discourse within our own student body, made clear yet again this week, speaks otherwise.

We as a campus community have a serious problem dealing with people, groups and ideas that we either do not understand or simply disagree with. For as much as we speak about being “inclusive” and “understanding,” it always seems as if the same people that desire inclusion and understanding for their particular views are quick to disregard and at times verbally attack others with opposing traits and beliefs. I’ll be the first to admit that I have previously engaged in such activity, and I’ll also be the first to say that I doubt any member of the Allegheny community can sincerely look at their actions and state that they have never engaged in the same.

To be clear, I am by no means implying that we as a community should not foster discussion, especially concerning differing values and beliefs.  This would be counterproductive to both our academic and personal education.

With that said, I find that a number of students fail to grasp the concept of “debate” and rather proceed to take further polarizing stances as opposed to listening to and  evaluating others’ opinions. Even more troubling, I’ve engaged with a significant number of campus community members who are all too willing to assume key aspects of one’s beliefs based on labels.

As one of three Mormons currently attending Allegheny, I cannot even begin to relay how many people have pre-judged my opinions on topics ranging from marriage equality to who I voted for in the 2012 election. It’s hypocrisy in its most primitive form to seek inclusion disingenuously as so many members of our community do.

Fixing the problem is easier said than done and I doubt we can eradicate the issue. With that said, if we each put forth a little effort, we can potentially decrease the reach of our problem. Rather than immediately reacting to a controversial issue, take the time to understand the issue in question given the facts and why those with opposing views feel as they do instead of  blurting out a knee-jerk comment. That is, actually listen to and attempt to understand those with opposing views or beliefs, their perspective, and respond in something of the form, “I see your point, although I still do not agree because of x,y,z, I think I understand where you’re coming from” rather than, “Oh, excuse me, I didn’t know that morals are dead you’re sexist you hate God you want children dead go jump off a cliff.” Instead of talking over one another and immediately dismissing others’ beliefs, why not listen, think and respond in a coherent, non-threatening, non-sarcastic manner? Maybe, instead of applying labels, we take the time to get to know one another and embrace the good qualities that make us all unique. I know it’s hard, trust me, but I feel that if we can dedicate ourselves to performing these seemingly small actions, we will not only create a more inclusive community but enhance our worldly perspectives as well.

When we enter the “real world” following the conclusion of our formal studies, we’re going to enter a much larger pool of individuals with differing thoughts, ideas, backgrounds, and beliefs. One of Allegheny’s tasks is to prepare us for this world, and Allegheny offers a number of resources both curricular and co-curricular to expose ourselves to differing viewpoints and learn how to properly deal with those we disagree with. Many courses, such as Dr. Howard Tamashiro’s “National Security Controversies,” include a debate component wherein students can be asked to defend an idea or practice that they disagree with. The college sponsors numerous outside speakers each year with varying viewpoints and ideologies. If you’re not one to fancy large public forums, which admittedly can fall into the same traps mentioned in the above paragraph, you’re bound to enter a discussion with another student with differing views and beliefs from your own at some point, and it will then be up to you to listen and attempt to understand. Even with the aforementioned resources, it is up to each of us as individuals to take up the task of broadening our sensitivity and understanding. It is our task to see that not every issue presents a clear choice, and that it is perfectly acceptable to be ambivalent about a particular topic. It is our task to learn how to separate criticism of an idea from a personal attack. The resources are out there, but we need to be wise enough to use them.

Our generation is quickly coming of age, and if we are to make a positive impact we need to learn how to listen to one another. I write this article knowing fully well that some will see it as necessary to pick apart each of my sentences and parade them about the comments section and/or lunch discussion. I know that some of what I’ve written will be taken out of context, mocked and put against fallacy after fallacy. I still respect you as my peers regardless. Whatever our perspective on: life, politics, the economy, Brooks food, orgasms, religion, guns and Gator Day, we’re all in this together.