Learning by Listening: Every perspective deserves to be heard

Op-ed about the value of dissenting opinions and the importance of a free marketplace of ideas. Published in The Collegian on September 2, 2011.

At Grove City College, much unites us. Whether devotion to Christ or a love for Sherri’s omelets, it is no secret that our student body is made up of many individuals who have many things in common.

But while this unity is indeed something to be treasured and preserved, there is an unfortunate downside to living in a community marked by such harmony: the tendency toward an attitude of self-reinforcement, one that suppresses dissenting viewpoints in favor of preserving the camaraderie many of us have come to love.

In 1972 psychologist Irving Janis defined groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive ingroup, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Applied at the time to smaller groups of policy-makers, the concept pertains to even the largest of human associations – including college campuses.

Groupthink is by no means unique to the College, nor is the problem more significant here than at other schools and organizations. Indeed, I think that Grovers are, by and large, far more thoughtful and open-minded than many suppose. But at a small school, especially a religious one, opinions and beliefs diverge from the “norm” not only stick out, but are often too easily written off as mistaken, misguided or just plain inferior.

I don’t think it is even necessary to explain why such an attitude is detrimental to achieving a truly liberal education. When dissenting views are not taken seriously, education becomes useless.

But the real harm in such thinking is not only found in academia. The continued ignorance of alternative views, even if unintentional, can leave entire cultures with huge intellectual blind spots. And in the modern age of “majority rule,” blind spots like these can have devastating and widespread consequences. Indeed, not too long ago the ideas of women’s rights, racial equality and even academic freedom were unthinkable to the majority of Americans, who had long regarded the claims of rights activists and abolitionists as erroneous.

If there is ever a time to discover our cultural and intellectual blind spots, it is now. In college, mistakes are confined to letter grades. But when it comes time to apply what we’ve learned in a way that will directly affect our fellow human beings, blind spots and oversights can be very costly indeed.

In 1943, political journalist Isabel Paterson during the height of what would become the bloodiest war in human history, famously observed that it is not by our mistakes that we cause the most harm to our fellow human beings, but by our refusal to test our own beliefs and presuppositions.

“Most of the harm in the world is done by good people,” she wrote, “and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends…when millions are slaughtered, when torture is practiced … oppression made a policy, as at present over a large part of the world … it must be at the behest of very many good people, and even by their direct action, for what they consider a worthy object.”

So whether discussing gender roles or the war on drugs, no viewpoint ought to be flippantly labeled as inferior or heretical thoughtful consideration. Though disregarding “outlandish” ideas can be conducive to establishing group solidarity, the cost of doing so is too high.

In the same vein, while it is wise to draw upon the work of professors, clergymen and other of our intellectual betters, simply pointing to their conclusions to reinforce our own opinions is not sufficient. Even the most brilliant thinkers face staunch opposition from others as smart as they. No opinion ought to be considered above criticism. As Solomon wrote, “Wisdom is with the humble.”

This is why Perspectives is here. It exists not to stir up dissent, incite anger or invent scandal. Rather, it is a platform whereby we, working together, can discover where we fall short, and what we can learn from each other’s diverse and varied experiences. Any and all opinions are welcome.

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