OP-ED: Don’t let social justice obscure the pursuit of truth in college

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One of the reasons I was excited to come to Kansas State is because of its commitment to free speech.

The prominent legal group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, ranked K-State “Green” on the free speech scale in comparison to the University of Kansas, which sits at “Yellow.” Poor KU.

For many students, however, the numerous racially charged events that plagued campus in 2017 made them recoil. The K-State community responded by advocating for more diversity and inclusion.

I think these two observations perfectly encapsulate the problem facing many college campuses and our nation today: how do we balance freedom with dignity and decency? I want to articulate how we should promote inclusion without compromising the university’s fundamental pursuit: truth.

When the notable New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt lectured at Duke University, he posed a metaphorical dichotomy between “Social Justice” University and “Truth” University. When he asked his audience which university they would pick, some students objected he had established a false dichotomy. So, who’s right?

All of them.

We cannot pretend that social justice, as it’s understood today, is absolutely wrong. And we cannot, in good reason, believe that Haidt does not have a relevant point to make.

Many campuses across the country have deteriorated into bastions of tears and mayhem at the mere thought of dissenting opinions. A nuanced account of the issues, however, shows us that ideas must be taken with careful consideration.

If a campus had an absolute policy on free speech where no speech was checked, then the student body may not trust that the university is a “safe” place to share their views. However, we must ask: why is the university being “safe” to begin with?

Some will claim it’s for human dignity, which is realized in being heard and being at liberty to express oneself.

But are we not contradicting our original premise if we hold to that principle too strongly? If we believe so rigidly that a violation of speech is a violation of dignity, then should we not dispose of safety entirely?

But if we dispose of safety entirely, we remove the very ability or willingness for people to express themselves. Instead, the campus becomes subject to the mob and its orthodoxy.

So, where do we draw the line?

Consider this example: your friend believes the moon is made of green cheese. Outside of class, you would probably chuckle and let them be — maybe you would tell the truth.

However, you would question your friend. Are they trying to propagate that view as the dominant one of the science department? You would feel warranted to question them once their beliefs go beyond their domain and ascend to orthodoxy. You know that the integrity of the university depends on its engagement with evidence and arguments. If a view is taught to you as fact, you want to trust that it is indeed fact.

Every idea espoused by the university is subject to some higher moral duty to the truth because the university claims to be a place of learning and inquiry — and we trust it to be so.

Think about how much faith we place in our professors to present viewpoints in their most accurate form, so we can be informed students. A breach in that trust would cripple an entire department and institution.

So, what are the conditions that are conducive to the pursuit of the truth?

First, we need to understand that the truth opens us to be inclusive and diverse. We understand that the project of truth-seeking requires the brightest minds from all walks of life.

Second, we promote behaviors that are derived from the spirit of truth. Our conduct should be humble and rigorous as the truth requires open-mindedness and precision. We establish basic customs of decency that do not inherently preclude argument-based ideas. An insult toward someone is not derived from truth because its intention is to harm and belittle.

Third, truth places a burden on us to be strong enough to have our precious ideas questioned. It requires us to be mature in the face of the world’s complexity. We might feel “unsafe” because of another viewpoint, but we should ask if we are willing to have that view entirely silenced — especially when we might have many objectionable views of our own. However, if that view is directly inciting violence, then it is no longer open to rational engagement and can be legitimately curtailed.

Fourth, I think the university should open its doors to whoever is willing to present their views in a scholarly and truth-seeking fashion. This means that we do not have some ready-made concept of truth we want them to support, but that we allow the full range of ideas to flourish.

Fifth, we must teach that truth is not just about being right — it is about being right for the betterment of others. The reason we tell the truth is not because we care about puffing our chests but because of genuine concern for the well-being of others. It’s better for our happiness to be grounded in reality rather than the sands of fiction.

Whenever a culture holds a dogma or belief without question, that culture enters stagnation and dies. The university, if it holds to dogmas aside from the most basic values conducive to truth-seeking, will become a joke of its true self.

K-State has a fresh opportunity to chart grounds that other campuses across the nation have failed to honor. Let us cherish diversity, inclusivity and integrity — because that is what the truth demands of us.

Suan Sonna is a freshman in political science and philosophy. The views and opinions expressed in this opinion-editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.