Tolerance at BHSEC: How Should We Approach Controversy?

Livia Miller, ‘18

Although school has only been in session for two months, the BHSEC community has already been shaken by online discourse and controversy. While the student body is for the most apart in agreement about what kinds of language and ideology we find unacceptable in our school and sphere of communication, questions are raised about how to make the school a more respectful environment. This in and of itself is a complex idea- tolerance to liberal ideology is something which most of the student body would fervently support, but tolerance to those ideas which we find less appealing to our finely honed liberal sense of self righteousness is trickier. Does tolerance to more conservative, less “woke” ideas mean tolerance to racism and generalized bigotry? Is there any way to be objective about ideas while still maintaining standards of behavior?

In the opinion of this student, there must be a way to be tolerant even to the ideas that we disagree with. Liberalism in the purest sense has historically been a reactionary philosophy based on the idea of speaking truth to power, and allowing for freedom of expression no matter the cost. To shoddily paraphrase the thinker Voltaire, the purest ideology of liberalism is defending someone’s right to say even that which you do not agree with, on the principle of freedom alone. Voltaire’s ideas came out of the Enlightenment, a period in which philosophy and political thought were emerging as the antitheses of dogmatic monarchies in Europe. There is no doubt that the political climate in 21st century America is incomparable to the climate that gave rise to liberalism, but the parallels between that which liberalism was reacting against and what liberalism is now becoming are troubling.

If our normative principles are becoming a dogmatic truth, are we really fighting the good fight? Ignoring the word “liberal,” the ideology most BHSEC students share is focused on equity, from a racist and a gender perspective,  promoting tolerance and amplifying marginalized voices within our community. But the instant we begin to decide which voices deserve to amplified, and which perspectives are marginalized enough to warrant attention, we begin to step into the role of monarch, not revolutionary.  This is a flawed argument, of course, because there are of course limits. We must condemn hate speech and dismantle oppressive institutions, from language of dehumanization to power structures that promote equality. These systemic issues must be addressed from the roots up.The line between condemning oppression and overstepping the limits of tolerance is fine and is getting finer with every issue that stretches the moral fabric of our community.

So how do we address this question? As a community, how can we figure out how to tread the narrow space between the perilous extremes? The key lies in creating more spaces for mediated discourse, and training ourselves and each other to know the right tone and the right words for dialogue that questions all that which we believe in. This is no small feat, but the BHSEC ethos is founded upon intellectual integrity, maturity, and academic risk-taking. Discussion-based learning provides a framework in which to approach even the more personal issues. All that is human is messy and raw and the tension that issues of tolerance creates is valid and even necessary for creating the right balance. Being able to address even raw issues with the kind of dignity and objectivity that we learn in class is key in our ability to function in the world as members of society.

Ultimately, what we learn about respect in our school environment informs how we make our contributions to the many spheres in which we dwell. Being a more tolerant community member in school shapes our ability to be more tolerant friends, and perhaps more tolerant members of society. Nothing acts in isolation, and our approach to the school environment is no exception. Our differences shape our perspectives, with our discourse, and our school environment, which shapes the rest of our lives.

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