John F. Kennedy once said,”Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” It is only through this discomfort that we can hope to improve. It’s much like exploring a land that is unknown to us. We cannot learn our paths without the failures of getting lost. We cannot build the strength of our feet without enduring the pain we eventually become accustomed to. We cannot grow without the discomfort of progress.
With this academic year’s theme of “Freedom of Expression,” this is an essential time to embrace what free speech principles entail. Not only should you exercise your right to freely express yourself, but you should afford others the right to be heard, learning from them in the process. Granted, the University does not have a solid history with such principles with its more-than-rocky relationship with campus press. However, I am hoping its current emphasis on free expression moves us all in the right direction. And what can the student body do in seeking the same goal? Engage.
Engagement with political speech is not as simple or as easy as it sounds. It demands much more than reading the newspaper everyday or listening to your friends talk about the latest political topic. The engagement that truly matters and promises the greatest amount of intellectual and emotional development in these formative years, is the engagement in speech you disagree with — that which you seldom hear, and know little about.
In these times, this kind of engagement is rare due to the rising rates of polarization in our country. From fights in school boards over banning books, to students shutting down speeches they disagree with. However, we must work against these trends, lest we continue to break down the very foundation upon which the modern university rests: a vigilant pursuit of truth. And this pursuit inevitably leads us through terrain and opposition which are unconformable.
When we think of polarization and its manifestations, most of us might imagine people on opposite ends of the political spectrum shouting at one another. We tend to visualize visceral and open opposition to one’s perceived enemies. However, these instances are not what I worry about when I think of polarization. These instances are in fact far and few between, compared to a much more pressing obstacle to open inquiry: apathy.
My biggest worry is for those who are so far removed from political discourse, so far absorbed by their echo chambers, that they simply lack any interest in engaging with the other side. While they may not be shouting down their opposition, they are worse off in lacking the desire to learn what they oppose. I believe political apathy, as a result of polarization, is especially pernicious because it deprives others a space to express themselves. More concerning are its effects on those who wish to not engaging with the other side. They deprive themselves room to grow, intellectually and emotionally. Without the practice of defending your own beliefs, they are ill-equipped to do so when it matters more. Without understanding why others hold their beliefs, it becomes harder to properly humanize them in the future. Lastly, very rarely do we discover the truth without tackling our preconceived notions. Without political engagement, one might fall-short in how accurate their perception of the world is. I worry for those who would sacrifice personal and intellectual growth for emotional comfort. I worry for those who believe they know the truth without engaging in opposing views from which they would learn. I worry that the erosion of our foundational principles is caused not by the clouding of the truth, but by the comforts that disincentivize a desire for it.
To the freshmen especially, it is essential that you work against this aversion to discomfort. While I am sure you’ve been told to “get out of your comfort zone” many times before, the underlying wisdom remains valuable. Fitting with this year’s theme, seek out those student organizations which expose you to ideas you rarely come across. No matter how knowledgeable you may be in law, philosophy or politics, it remains important that you maintain your pursuit of truth for the sake of reinforcing those foundational principles that we all benefit from. With an organization, such as the Cornell Political Union, which has granted me the most fulfilling years of my life, you will be exposed to a plethora of beliefs to learn from. You will be engaged in a robust community who want nothing but to see you thrive, intellectually and socially. I encourage getting involved with an organization such as Cornell Votes, which works to increase political engagement on campus. With their registration efforts coming up on Sept. 19, you would come across many different ideologies as you work to register students from all walks of life.
This is, of course, not an invitation to start an argument every chance you get. Approaching your own learning experience with a competitive, affective mindset is not a productive way to go about things. I advise you all, not just freshmen, to engage with opposing viewpoints, allowing you to better define your own position and why you hold your views. You will eventually find yourself in a fulfilling community, strengthened by a common desire for free speech and the pursuit of truth. It is only by taking the next step in engaging that we, the student body, can make the most out of this academic year’s theme, and the rest of our time at Cornell University.
Daniel Obaseki is a fourth year student in the College of Arts and Sciences and the President of the Cornell Political Union. His fornightly column Beyond Discourse focuses on politics, culture and student life at Cornell. He can be reached at [email protected].
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