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ON THE FRONTLINES: Respectful exchange of ideas is possible

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“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” or so goes the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Free speech has been a heavily debated issue at Rutgers over the last semester, with everyone from the President of the United States to the President of Rutgers University putting in their own opinions. I figured I may as well add mine. Free speech is a right guaranteed to all Americans, but as noted by Randall Munroe, just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean anyone has to agree with you. So if you’re part of a movement and you want to expand it, part of the challenge is convincing others to agree with you.

Breitbart contributor Milo Yiannopoulos was invited by the Young Americans for Liberty, a right-leaning organization on campus, to speak to the Rutgers student body. They did not use University funds, nor did the school endorse (or comment at all beforehand) on the event. That same night, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and activist Sister Souljah came to Rutgers to speak to the community, having been invited by the Africana Studies Department.

Sister Souljah in particular discussed her life and gave tips on effectively enacting change through protest. Many students walked out during this talk to protest Yiannopoulos by interrupting him, leaving red paint on facilities and otherwise convincing the nation that Rutgers students can’t handle opinions they don’t like.

I don’t know of anyone who was convinced of their viewpoints that night.

Political correctness is important. Not going out of your way to offend others is important. Paying attention to facts and not disregarding the experiences of others is important, but as President Obama said, “sometimes there are folks on college campuses … who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem.” Yes, he specifically talked about liberals, but there are conservatives who also don’t like hearing that others disagree with them. I believe in free speech, and more importantly, I believe in the free exchange of ideas. There are some comments that are absolutely too twisted to share, or lack any form of merit. Some people take pleasure in hurting others with their words. But there are many people who shout down everyone they disagree with regardless of whether they disagree with violent rhetoric or a more innocuous way. They don’t try to convince their opponents, they don’t try to convince bystanders, they just disagree. And usually all that results is they’re seen as an “extreme group” whose ideas are not worth sharing.

A respectful exchange of ideas is possible. Two contributors to this very opinions section discussed the complexities of funding New Jersey’s public transportation system and roadways. I don’t know if they ever convinced each other of their own views but I, as a previously uninterested bystander, learned a lot about New Jersey's roads just from reading about it. I’m not saying that information about keeping our roads in working condition has the same severity as comments about racism, sexism or violent language in general, but the way the ideas were presented and how the writers responded to each other made me want to pay attention.

Movements can only be as powerful as the people they impact. The Civil Rights Movement impacted most of the country, resulting in legal actions formally ending segregation and Jim Crow laws. The Mahatma Gandhi and his nonviolent movement convinced an empire to leave India. The American Revolution was not so much a movement as it was, well, a revolution — but it inspired other groups in other countries to overthrow their governments. These movements inspired, and they were successful. While racism is still an issue which has taken new forms in today’s society, progress has been made.

At the same time, people have to be proud of their actions and their words. Our website sees a lot of comments, and in the wake of February’s protests, we saw a lot of racist or otherwise violent ones. Even now, a few users post nothing productive on the site. The chief commonality is that they are posted by anonymous users. They aren’t ashamed of demeaning others online, but they are ashamed of linking their names to their words, and this is also a group that will never convince a majority to side with them. They’re allowed to do so, but they’re shouting into the void hoping someone will fall for the bait.

Everyone at Rutgers has the right to share their views — as University President Robert L. Barchi said, "All of the members of our community — our faculty members, students, alumni and staff — are free to express their viewpoints in public forums as private citizens, including viewpoints that the University itself or I personally may not share." But if you want to prove you’re simply not making noise for the sake of making noise, do so in a way that’ll get others to listen. Silencing or demeaning the people who have these ideas may make you feel better, but it won’t convince anyone else to join your cause. As Obama said, “That’s not the way we learn.”

Nikhilesh De is a School of Engineering junior. He is the news editor of The Daily Targum.

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