Sunday, September 23

Chris Busco: UCLA should host a variety of speakers to debate contested issues

(Shreya Mantri/Daily Bruin)

(Shreya Mantri/Daily Bruin)

Liberal and conservative, Globalist and nationalist, anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights.

The nation is more divided now than before, and all our ideological debates boil down to the same general principal – us versus them. However, real life isn’t ever that simple; it doesn’t function in the realm of absolute right and wrong.

Unfortunately, these harmful binaries primarily serve to score partisan victories rather than promote actual consensus or debates about these divisive topics. And while, in an ideal world, the university is above the ideological fray and functions as a hub for ideas to be combined and debated upon, that’s obviously not the case at present. Universities too have fallen victim to the ever-insidious plague of closed binaries, and we need look no further than the recent partisan squabbles with UC Berkeley’s “Free Speech Week” event to see this.

In two weeks’ time, UCLA will host its own version of a free speech week, Free Speech 101, an increasingly popular trend on college campuses. During this week, the university will sponsor several events, including moderated panels, with the central purpose of examining the role of free speech in society and the obligations of a society’s participants in upholding it.

To cut through the hyperpartisan fray that has invaded our academics in recent years, however, the university must go further than merely paying lip service. Ultimately, while discussing the importance of free speech is a step in the right direction, nothing is as effective as seeing the actual thing in practice.

As such, UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion should work with departments to sponsor a lecture series devoted to bringing speakers from all across the political spectrum to campus throughout the year. The office should ensure these lectures serve as a space for those speakers to converse with one another about contentious and timely societal issues, not just about the technicalities of free speech.

The central mission of a university is education and that inherently involves exposing students to a vast array of beliefs and ideas, even ones they may not agree with – something universities have had difficulty with because of growing animosity between ideologically opposing groups.

We saw this on our own campus last year. Incendiary Bruin Republican-sponsored events such as those titled Feminism is Cancer” and “An Illegal Immigrant Killed my Child” were clearly meant to stoke outrage rather than promote discourse about actual conservative ideals. Furthermore, the opposing response was not much better, as protests sought to shut down the events by barring audience members and speakers from entering.

This is a shame, since there is a lot to be gained from the free exchange of ideas, even when some of them may not be popular. And debates provide a forum for students to not just practice free speech, but also test the merit of their ideas.

The EDI office should therefore organize a series of debates predicated on providing context for the hot-button issues of our political moment – issues the office already provides commentary on. The office could work with relevant academic departments on campus to assemble a panel of experts from varying backgrounds.

A debate series would give oxygen to a variety of opinions and more importantly, create a space for such ideas to be placed in context and discussion with one another, exposing students not just to one particular school of thought or ideological position, but a spectrum of viewpoints and their intersections. And this can go a long way in breaking down many of the rigid binaries that all too often lead to the alienation of individuals who do not share common beliefs – something we can readily see at UCLA.

Some students seem to think this too.

“I think that it would be pretty cool (to have a series of debates) because it would give ideas on how other people think and work toward making a culture of open thought and open forums,” said Anuninderjeet Virk, a third-year cognitive science student.

Bruin Republicans declined to comment, however, and Bruin Democrats could not be reached for comment.

There is, of course, a legitimate argument that a debate series would give credence to ideas some deem uncomfortable. However, such ideas need to be discussed, if only to provide reasoned evidence for their illegitimacy. In fact, suppression of such ideas generally does nothing more than stoke outrage and give further ammunition and attention to their proponents. It’s worth mentioning that there is an important distinction between uncomfortable speech and hate speech, or speech that incites violence against certain peoples or groups. It will be the responsibility of the EDI office to ensure that the speakers chosen to come to campus will not engage in speech of this kind.

And while some issues, such as climate change, don’t have two sides, per se, it’s even more necessary to have debates, because they can dismantle harmful misconceptions. Suppressing these beliefs and ideas often times leads turns their proponents into martyrs, magnifying their voice and influence.

The debate series proposed here will have topics and speakers chosen by the EDI office with input from a wide variety of academic departments and student groups. This process will not only ensure that viewpoints are given proper representation but also that speakers and topics chosen actually allow room for the discussion and debate necessary for students to learn from the exchange.

It’s time UCLA practices what it preaches. A series of debates centering around the great ideological questions of this tumultuous time and featuring talented speakers from across the political spectrum would allow it to do just that.

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Opinion columnist

Busco is an Opinion columnist and a staff representative on the Daily Bruin Editorial Board.

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