Learning left, right and centre: A student’s plea to students

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Credit: University of Stirling [CC BY-SA 4.0]

by Scott M. Patterson

An ancient Greek philosopher – or dead old white man – once mused that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”.

Students, get used to digging for such quotes and shoving them haphazard into myriad essays. That one could serve as a great target for where your studies take you, just as another draws the starting line: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Such perspective feels desperately needed these days.

Yeats would have you believe we’re in an eternally spinning gyre as history repeats itself over and over, a variant of Nietszche’s similarly supernatural flat circle. Really it’s just people being people and getting slightly better at it over time, but only just.

Be careful that as you keep your eyes and ears left, right and centre, you put education front, right and centre. Understanding our world and its whys is the only way to bring meaning to some pretty heavy business. Beware, also, what said business makes of us in turn.

On March 6 this year, Stirling University Politics Society hosted an Israeli diplomat, an impressive coup and an invaluable experience for those present, who gained insight and the chance to directly interrogate her country’s policies on Palestine.

The protesters outside the meeting certainly did, but amidst the principled expression of ethical and moral outrage there was the familiar presence of personal indignation. Many of the most vocal were not expressing dismay at the situation in Palestine, but were condemning the event’s very existence. Rather than seeing a chance to have a face of Israel’s government represent its actions, too many simply couldn’t tolerate the idea of the diplomat being given the chance to speak.

There was talk of it “normalising” and even “legitimising” the deplorable state of affairs in Gaza, while another leap saw some suggest that their personal abjection be privileged over the rights of others to speak and hear.

The trouble with this approach is that it would by logical extension suggest that a person’s day in court shouldn’t be granted less it “normalise” the murder they committed, and speaks of a refusal to extend to those we disagree with the same rights we cherish when granted to ourselves.

The irony that such an exemption occurred in relation to a part of the world where such wise and enlightened principles are but a dream to pass nights of gunfire went mostly unnoticed.

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The campus protest against the visit of an Israeli diplomat last March. Credit: Ross Brannigan

While this was one incident, it is indicative of a growing trend. We seem to be going through a period where areas of life pertaining prominently to our young culture are defined by such conflicts.

There is controversy over YouTube reserving their right to demonetise certain video content they view as being ad-unfriendly, naturally leading to accusations of political bias. Barely a week goes by where there isn’t a story of Twitter suspending, banning and deleting based on the finer points of their guidelines, so often leading to an ambiguous reading.

And while the rate at which guest speakers have their campus gigs cancelled or hijacked doesn’t match the United States, it is still demoralising.

Jargon is utilised instead of justification, intellectual rhetoric creating the illusory sense of reasoned analysis, masking the blunt fact that one’s opinion has been allowed to win out over another’s within our liberal and free society.

We ban, lest we tolerate.

We’re at a chaotic ideological spaghetti junction, where the alt-Right champion the virtues of liberal idealism while the progressive Left embrace conservative prioritisation of security over liberty and stamp out dissent through dehumanising, retributive collectivism.

It would be absurd obfuscation to suggest that the overwhelming voices of social media in some way misrepresent society when the net is more representative than ever, and there is no doubting that too many people become more trenchant in their view when challenged on it.

The hunt for a narrative to validate the need for clarity means we all seem to think we’re the good guy, and that anybody who challenges our core values is the next Anjem Choudary.

This is a well-defined and recognisable trend, and denying it is as blinkered as it is regressive. When it comes to education, seeking out discourse should be an aim, even if it’s less Socratic and more Sun Tzu.

The profound shouldn’t be sacrificed to buttress a character already seen as complete, just as the principles fostered and nurtured by the Enlightenment shouldn’t be abandoned when there’s seldom a right or wrong answer. Just ask the poor soul marking your essays.

Despite the protestations of one infamous YouTube sensation, the campus can be both a home and an intellectual space. All this writer can do is issue a plea, to ask you to not to fulfil the abhorrent stereotype of the modern student.

Instead, perhaps entertain these tantalising possibilities: the person supporting trigger warnings isn’t some hypersensitive cuck-agent of a conspiracy to snuff out your individualism; the one who disliked the Ghostbusters remake isn’t a misogynistic cat’s paw of patriarchal oppression; the 52% of British people who voted to leave the EU aren’t a malignant racist cabal; the media isn’t a giant totalitarian left wing monster; post-modernism isn’t a network of secret tunnels for ambushing sleeper bigots; science isn’t a league table dictating who is superior; shouting buzzwords and catchphrases to shame people only makes you the bad guy you couldn’t possibly be; a conversation with somebody you disagree with could open up your mind more than reading Socrates, or Aristotle, or Laurie Penny, or Peter Hitchens.

Thus the value in learning from every word shared in written or verbal form is as much a part of this journey you’re on as the textbook in front of you, and we’re hoping said travails won’t turn ugly.

So to you all, we bid good learning and good luck. Remember to use those quotes.

But don’t worry, you won’t necessarily have to agree with them either.

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