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Diversity of thought silenced

Unpopular opinions face isolation

March 3, 2017

Despite being in a supposedly open-minded environment, junior Billy Nicholls said he commonly finds himself struggling to speak his mind at school when he disagrees with majority opinions.

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Silence of dissent at Park


Junior Dafne Carmona-Rios said she avoids sharing her political opinion at school because she fears offending others.

“(I don’t share my political opinions) because I feel like sometimes I might say stuff that might offend other people and other people’s opinions,” Carmona-Rios said. “If it’s like literature, reading or stuff like that I do express my opinion.”

Social studies teacher Brad Brubaker said dissenting opinions often get silenced at Park because of the liberal majority.

“If you go with math from for our mock election, six out of seven students voted for Hillary Clinton,” Brubaker said. “So that means that basically if you were to just conjecture a little bit, any given debate on an issue, six people are going to find themselves the majority, and the one potentially is sitting in the minority.”

Sophomore Khalyma Robinson said although she feels comfortable sharing her views, she understands why some of her classmates don’t.

“For me, yes (I feel comfortable sharing my views),” Robinson said. “I don’t know about other people because I know some people are very critical of other people’s opinions. I think it more has to do with people not being able to accept other people’s views.”

Social studies teacher Jeff Cohen said students have reached out to him after feeling alienated for their political views.

“Students have come to me and felt pretty left out or pretty punished or ostracized for some of their views and that’s because the views aren’t the popular or majority view,” Cohen said. “I think that’s a shame for a school that prides itself on being open and being diverse. That in theory it sounds great, (but) in practice I don’t think it’s nearly what the school claims or wants to be.”

Brubaker said students often struggle with being open minded in discussions because they are too focused on winning arguments.

“You don’t get a very good discussion if somebody’s already pretty much decided ‘I need to win this battle,’ ‘I need to win this discussion,’ versus ‘I can sit down and have a discussion if I really want to know why somebody believes a certain way on an issue,’” Brubaker said.

Brubaker said he believes students’ unwillingness to be open-minded mirrors behaviors witnessed in the general public.

“I think in the public realm most people just want to win the debate. They want to win the next election or win the next position whatever that is. I think that gets modelled for kids and often times it gets spilled over. That’s the debate we see in public and that ends up being the debate we see in a more private sector,” Brubaker said.

Junior Eli Curran-Moore said Park’s diversity allows for positive discussions in many areas.

“I think St. Louis Park does a really good job of being inclusive and open to all opinions. I think there’s definitely schools where they aren’t as open to other people’s opinions, so I think the diversity if you’re in St. Louis Park helps with keeping everyone open to different things and different perspectives,” Curran-Moore said.

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Fostering respectful dialouge

Nicholls said Park must acknowledge the issue of the silence of dissenting views because hearing various opinions will only better the community.

“There’s a lot of kids out there like myself that sometimes might have opposing views that just don’t want to share them. But I think it can be good for people to share them,” Nicholls said. “The more open all of us are, the better we can be as a community and as a society.”

Cohen said it’s important for people with majority views to have more tolerance for other opinions.

“If there are people that are speaking their view that you don’t agree with, be OK with it. It’s not a personal attack, it’s not anything personal. People have their views for very different reasons,” Cohen said. “Just be more open, be more considerate. Read more sources, read more and listen to more varied opinions and perspectives on things.”

According to Megan Fromm, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at Colorado Mesa University, students should focus on talking about facts and content rather than trying to persuade others to think identically as them.

“Instead of coming to a conversation thinking ‘oh I’m going to make sure you see this my way by the time we’re done,’ coming to a conversation and saying ‘I just want to hear what you have to say,’ kind of alleviates some of the pressure,” Fromm said. “Not everything has to be a debate — sometimes we just have to listen and sometimes you’re hearing what somebody has to say instead of pushing the issue every time.”

Cohen said people with unpopular views in school need to be more confident in voicing their opinion.

“If you’re in the minority view, I think you just need to have a little bit more confidence and courage and know that you may hear something that doesn’t feel good,” Cohen said. “People might give you looks, or they make comments, and you have to just be thicker skinned.”

Carmona-Rios said hearing a variety of opinions allows students to be more mindful.

“I feel like you should (share your political opinion) because we can all learn from each others’ opinions. It doesn’t mean we have to change our opinions, it could just open our minds to maybe broader (opinions),” Carmona-Rios said.

Fromm said it’s important for people to share their views as long as they don’t harm others.

“People should feel free to speak their mind as long as they’re not directly harming another person whether that’s physically; whether that’s harming their reputation with libel,” Fromm said.

Curran-Moore said people must listen to one another without their preconceptions interfering.

“I think it’s important to just listen before you speak, and try to come in without the bias and without any preconceptions and just listen to what the person has to say,” Curran-Moore said.

According to Brubaker, engaging in open-minded conversations should be practiced once students begin high school.

“I think it starts in places like ninth grade civics where can you discuss issues and not hate people,” Brubaker said.

Cohen said students should acknowledge that people with dissenting views are not bad people.

“I don’t think anyone here is bad or evil,” Cohen said. “People can have views, people can change views (and) people should be able to discuss views openly without that fear of being labeled.”

Curran-Moore said Park’s diversity allows for positive discussions.

“I think St. Louis Park does a really good job of being inclusive and open to all opinions. I think there’s definitely schools where they aren’t as open to other people’s opinions, so I think the diversity if you’re in St. Louis Park helps with keeping everyone open to different things and different perspectives,” Curran-Moore said.

Brubaker said people with dissenting views may encounter problems expressing their opinions in the presence of a critical majority.

“Whenever you’ve got a critical majority, it makes the minority that much more potentially uncomfortable,” Brubaker said. “I think it runs true whether you’re talking about racial majorities and minorities, whether you’re talking about religious majorities and minorities, or opinions that are majority opinions or minority opinions.”

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Defining hate speech

Nicholls said he sometimes feels people develop preconceived ideas about him because he might have different views than his peers.

“I feel like I’ll get judged in the wrong way and people jump to conclusions about me when I’m super accepting,” Nicholls said. “I respect everyone’s views, but I just don’t want people to think a certain way about me just because I have different views.”

According to a recent survey of 12,000 high school students published by the Knight Foundation, 91 percent of students nationwide feel it’s important to “express unpopular opinion.” However, only 45 percent of students believe in unrestrained speech if it offends another person.

According to Jon Sotsky, director of strategy and assessments at the Knight Foundation, the line between potentially hurtful speech and hate speech is very blurred.

“Essentially (hate speech is) speech that is intended to incite violence or harm, and it is very difficult honestly for the court to define what that is,” Sotsky said. “(The courts have) generally been pretty permissive of speech unless they can really prove that. I think cultural norms might ultimately have a bearing on where they set that boundary.”

Fromm said a perspective that offends another person is not classified as hate speech.

“I think it’s important for people to know that just because it’s offensive doesn’t mean it’s hate speech. Just because people disagree doesn’t mean it’s hate speech,” Fromm said. “If it targets a group based off of these really innate things in a way that’s really threatening, then it could be hate speech.”

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1 Comment

One Response to “Diversity of thought silenced”

  1. Mike Schechter on March 7th, 2017 8:15 am

    Great article– It is incumbent on the teachers to draw out opposing views, playing devil’s advocate at times, and creating the safe space to host all conversations. Politics is a pendulum. As the classroom described here has swung left, these students will experience in their lifetime classrooms or break rooms that are right-leaning. Now is the time to learn how to engage in respectful and productive discussions envisioned by the First Amendment– designed to enlighten and inform citizenry. And, future leaders avoid the sycophants. Some of our best presidents have filled cabinet posts with political opponents recognizing the value of hearing, understanding and giving safe space to all opinions. I hope that Park is teaching not only this tradition, but perhaps more importantly, the skill set to create and reward these safe space conversations.

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