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Approach debate with sincere interest

By Jess Linde

Section: Opinions

April 21, 2015

Brandeis really cannot please anyone. Less than a month after Thomas Pickering was announced as this year’s commencement speaker, the Internet has pounced once again. Already, conservative website TruthRevolt published an article criticizing the school for hosting an “Israel hater” like Pickering after withdrawing an honorary degree from Ayaan Hirsi Ali last year. Despite the facts that Ali has rejected outstanding offers to speak on campus in order to further a false narrative, that I do not find Pickering’s statements on Israel to be as radical as some people who have spoken here and that my own politics drift far to the left, I have to say I kind of agree with the criticism.

Over the course of my three years at Brandeis, I have heard the phrase “vigorous debate” more times than I can count, usually in a sentence lamenting that debate is being silenced by the political and social views of one person or another. The most I ever heard it thrown around was during last year’s Israel Apartheid Week, when some students were angry that the event existed at all, and others claimed that their opponents had no interest in debate at all. I saw the same fight happen during the Ayaan Hirsi Ali controversy, and the most recent uproar during winter break. I participated in several of the online debates, got mad several times and realized too late that “vigorous debate” does not exist at Brandeis right now. Again, I have far-left beliefs, and my character has been treated with utter contempt by people I disagree with politically simply because I say I am a liberal.

But I have done the same thing. And despite my calling for reasoned and vigorous debate on comment threads, I have rarely entered a conversation with the intent of exchanging ideas. The few people I am friendly with who have differing political beliefs are people I never talk to about politics, and there are students who I have turned my nose up at based purely on their politcal reputation. The choosing of Pickering as a commencement speaker shows a similar indifference on the part of Brandeis. There is no doubt that some students may be uncomfortable with Pickering’s invitation considering his strong criticism of Israel, an issue that is fiery to say the least. If TruthRevolt and other conservative sites are to be believed at face value, it is actions such as booking Pickering that increases these students sense of isolation and fear of expressing their opinions. And if that is true, I cannot really blame them for taking their concerns to the Internet, even if I find the publications they contact abhorrent.

As a person who believes very strongly in the power of democratic debate, it is upsetting to see my peers enter conversations with their fists already raised, particularly when I am also guilty of assuming the worst about someone based on their beliefs. I have no solution for it, and I am not sure that one exists as long as most of the debate remains impersonal and on the Internet. All I can suggest for now is that my fellow students acknowledge these inherent biases, and at least try not to rush in guns blazing.

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