Embracing discomfort: A case for everyone to be comfortable with being uncomfortable

In recent years, the College has struggled with the concept of bringing in speakers and embracing opinions that deviate from the generally liberal political and social norms on campus.

I would like to approach this topic by first supporting efforts to introduce uncomfortable opinions, but also by challenging that notion. It seems that the  uncomfortable opinions we often seek to bring to campus are alike in that they regularly aim to make the same people uncomfortable.

To begin, it is my own personal opinion that it is absolutely crucial to embrace discomfort in one’s education. Confronting painful truths and undergoing analytical introspection as result of new, unfamiliar and uncomfortable opinions, ideas and thoughts is what we should strive for as students at the College. Even if we disagree with a new opinion that we hear, we should embrace that opinion as a mechanism of learning. If we hear something we disagree with and after hearing it articulated, continue to disagree with it, we have simply bolstered our pre-existing knowledge on the basis that the opposition proved shoddy and unsatisfying. Alternately, we may also stand to gain a new perspective on a formerly-held belief or opinion by hearing ideas that may have been contrary to what we originally thought. Either way, by embracing opposing or uncomfortable ideas, we can’t lose.

On that note, I was, in some measure, dissatisfied with the fact that two controversial visitors were ultimately unable to speak at the College last year.  While I vehemently disagreed with virtually every stance each speaker would have presented to the student body, I felt there would have been more value in challenging their unsubstantiated, prejudiced claims in person than in simply disinviting them. We stood to gain more by confronting these speakers publicly than by refusing to hear them out. As ridiculous as their opinions were, these figures clearly hold clout in the larger world outside of the purple bubble. In my mind, hearing the side of the opposition could have been a strategic opportunity to sharpen our intellectual spearheads, for, as the saying goes, know thy enemy.

Yet, we should be neither surprised, nor angry, that the two invitees last year were so adamantly opposed. And it is an indication on the issue of who was to be made most uncomfortable.

A female anti-feminist and a man whose racial opinions are perhaps reminiscent of those of a former century were those who were disinvited (in the former case by the group that had invited her, in the latter, by President Adam Falk). And, yes, while it is crucial to embrace the idea of learning through discomfort, it is also crucial to carefully account for who we make uncomfortable and whether or not efforts at introducing discomfort fall evenly on the entire student body or just certain sections of it.

In the fallout of last year’s disinvitations, it was clear that female students and minority students were the most unhappy with the concept of bringing in speakers that in some ways would have directly challenged their achievements, socio-political opinions and personhood — but can we blame them? Female and minority students are already marginalized and oppressed by a host of different political and institutional systems and social frameworks. In a formerly single-sex, predominantly white institution, it should not be a surprise that women and minorities are often already, and perhaps constantly, in a state of intellectual and social discomfort. Opinions and social norms upheld by classmates, texts and topics covered in many curriculums perpetuate uncomfortable ideas for women and minorities, whether they like it or not. So can we be surprised? Do we have the right to scold these groups when they express disinterest in hearing yet more examples, in more glaring, personal contexts, of ideas and opinions that upset and challenge them?

In the future, I would like to see efforts at learning through discomfort that are more far-reaching. Everyone, not just women and minorities over and over, should be made uncomfortable in the name of learning. For example, to many, black militarism, radical feminism, pro-Palestinian viewpoints and democratic socialism are extremely uncomfortable topics. Yet we continue to see the same, traditionally marginalized populations confronted with the same arguments to their opinions.

Again, saying this does not detract from my belief that learning through discomfort and confronting opposing opinions is absolutely crucial. It is. But we must be sure that we are all exposed to the same levels of discomfort in this effort.

To use a rather crass pop culture example, the T.V. show Family Guy, a highly satirical and strongly offensive piece of animation, only works so well because it does not solely target certain groups to make fun of. As bad as this sounds to write, racial and religious minorities, white Americans of various social classes, the disabled, the foreign and the familiar are all satirized at the same frequency and to the same degree. No one group is made fun of more than another. That’s why Family Guy, while highly offensive, cannot really be considered prejudiced or hateful.

Therefore, we must continue to learn through making ourselves intellectually uncomfortable. By doing so, we only stand to bolster our pre-existing opinions and sharpen our mental weaponry against opposition — or perhaps to learn something new and change our minds. In the future, we should not seek to disinvite speakers to campus who make us uncomfortable but rather be sure that we are not only making the same people perpetually uncomfortable. If we’re going to continue efforts at learning through discomfort, we need to make sure that the discomfort is spread across the student body, or else it’s quite clearly targeted at certain groups and thereby ineffective in principle.

And, if the principle of education through discomfort is so essential, this should not be such a revolutionary or uncomfortable idea.


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