An open letter (challenge) to the PSU community

Dear esteemed colleagues, faculty, and fellow students of the Portland State community;

The new academic year is upon us, and with it as always the tenuous opportunity for fantastic successes and disastrous failures, intellectual breakthroughs and stifling conundrums. The arrival of October also heralds the three-quarter mark of what arguably has been the most tumultuous year in the last half-century of United States history.

November’s presidential election unleashed a sea of opposition and disdain followed by protest and discord throughout the country. Berkeley, Charlottesville, Portland, and many other cities have all played the role of contentious battlegrounds competing for possession of your ideological heart and mind.  

As the flurry of presidential directives emanating from our tweet-happy commander-in-chief bewilder us on a daily basis, people are being shouted down in the classroom and on the street when views and opinions contrast. Media bombard us with countless portrayals of mobs of disgruntled extremists from every corner of the darkest, ugliest dogmas we would like to pretend no longer exist. We’ve been barraged with examples of verbal berating, intimidation, physical assault and murder.

As a result, people are afraid to speak, afraid to share their views for fear of saying the wrong thing, inadvertently offending someone to the point of instant ostracization or worse.

The issue, of course, is not unique to PSU. Consider the letter composed by a collection of Harvard, Princeton and Yale professors addressed to incoming students at the onset of the new school year with the premise of asking them to commit to thinking critically and keeping open minds.

Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable,” the letter states. “It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.”

In conjunction, this open letter to you—the faculty, students, and community of PSU—is also a challenge: a challenge for you to maintain your individuality. You are not required to declare your allegiance to any identity, party line, group, or philosophy.

As transcendentalist agitator Ralph Waldo Emerson states in his essay Self Reliance, “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great [human] is [they] who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Feel free to strongly declare one position on an issue today and completely reverse yourself tomorrow. Feel free to explore all alternative views on any given topic. You have the right to maintain and/or change your mind at will.

At an Iowa town hall discussion in 2015, thenPresident Barack Obama summarized the necessity of individuality as such: “The purpose of college is not just to transmit skills. It’s also to widen your horizons, to make you a better citizen, to help you evaluate information, to help you make your way through the world, to help you be more creative.” Obama recognized the importance of facing uncomfortable ideas and resisting our innate tendency to turtle-up and deny consideration of others’ points of view in what now appears to be a visionary sentiment.

Similarly, Langston Hughes offers a fitting metaphor for the concept in his poem titled “Motto,” which sums up a feasible life strategy for survival in difficult circumstances: “I play it cool/And dig all jive/That’s the reason/I stay alive/My motto/As I live and learn/Is:/Dig and be dug in return.” Give respect, Hughes writes, and expect to be respected in return. Whatever the other is into, as long as they are not hurting themselves or anyone else, they are worthy of respect. The same is equally true for you and your beliefs.

Civil rights group The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education documented the disinvitation of 43 speakers from scheduled college campus engagements in 2016, and the list continues to grow in 2017. In a time when the supposition of ideas is frequently shut down for a wide spectrum of reasons, we need individuals to muster the courage to take on a dangerous proposition: Be willing to entertain ideas different from those you already hold.

How does one participate in said challenge? Read everything. Listen to everyone. Have lunch with someone whose views and experiences differ from your own. Remain malleable. Reach out. Say hello. Expand your tolerance for the individuality of others. Expand understanding of your own individuality.

Get involved, join a club, attend seminars, speaking engagements and debates. Pursue knowledge relentlessly. Commit to lifelong learning. Commit to a contribution to the human race and planet earth. Be true to yourself and all the world around you. Transcend your group identity. Refuse to let one mere aspect of your character dominate your entire psyche and persona.

Here’s a time-tested technique for initiating dialogue: Whenever aggressed with a particularly abrasive comment, instead of reacting viscerally with a verbal beat-down, ask the offender this question: What makes you say so? Afford yourself the opportunity to hear the reasoning, however unreasonable it may be, behind the other’s thinking. Hopefully, once you’ve offered the opportunity to be heard, you may in turn retort and be heard. Whenever an impasse should arise, let’s resurrect the lost art of agreeing to disagree peacefully.

Human beings are amazingly resilient creatures. Accept that you, yourself, are simultaneously fully capable of great good, great harm, and complete rehabilitation. Respectfully speak your mind in class. Don’t be afraid. Let honest inquiry and debate guide your actions, not fear of rejection or judgement. Think for yourself.

Best wishes for an excellent and enlightening school year.