If you’re a student at NLUD, two questions probably cross your mind before you ever express an opinion:
- Will the Modi government arrest me for this?
- Will my classmates lynch me for this?
We like to portray ourselves as flag bearers of freedom. We’ve read J.S. Mill, we’ve quoted the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges and perhaps have even sent Mark Zuckerberg a bottle of hand sanitiser to help him wash the blood off his hands post meeting Modi. In our first semester at law school, we’re taught audi alteram partem (hear the other side) as a principle of natural justice. In third year, we learn about the right to freedom of speech and the right to dissent.
And yet, somewhere along the way, in between our calls for liberty and equality, we lose sight of where we started, of the basic presuppositions of the very arguments we make. In our overzealousness to make our voices and the ones we deem right heard, we end up silencing the other side.
The space for views divergent from the dominant discourse seems to be a shrinking one – one that needs to be protected, regardless of which side of the debate you are on, whether you believe in separate utensils for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food or not, whether you think spots should be reserved on the football team for girls or not. Dissent on campus seems to be met with an ever-increasing dose of vitriol and hostility, of labels that are convenient to slap on people (‘misogynistic’, ‘bigoted’, ‘homophobe’), without fully delving into the rationale behind their arguments, or trying to understand their perspective.
Is what you have to say a feminist, liberal, left-wing statement? No?
Then shut up!
One would hope the course law school discussions take would be more nuanced and complex than this. Surely there must be some substance in views from the opposing side? And if nothing else, are we to discount the inherent value of a person’s opinions, regardless of their source and rationale?
Were Hitler’s views repulsive? I would say so. Do I still believe he was entitled to them? Yes. Did he have the right to impose his views on millions who disagreed? Not so much.
The difference between the second and third question above is one that is often obscured. Allowing people their opinions, however opposed to our own sense of morality or rationality they might be, does not mean these opinions will be imposed on others.
Are we perhaps afraid that these views will gain traction if we don’t oppose them? And if they do gain traction, and people have taken an informed decision, all arguments considered, to choose the less “liberal” (for lack of a better word) view, is it so terrible? If all are in agreement, and are content with the state they are in, are we to poke and prod, considering ourselves the torchbearers of enlightenment for these poor souls?
We laugh when someone narrates a story about having “capitalist” used against him as an insult, but think any proponents of a non-interventionist state must be inconsiderate and cannot really be philanthropists. We are horrified at the people who killed a man for eating beef, but are unflinching in our endless chains of emails attacking a differing view on campus issues.
The best part of my time at law school so far has been the range of differing views that constantly keep me questioning my beliefs and redefining them. Monarchy might strike many of us as egregious or unimaginable in the modern context, but perhaps a conversation with some of the foreign students will have you rethinking democracy before blindly hailing it as the only feasible political system. To attempt to reduce this mosaic of opinions to homogeneity would defeat one of the very purposes of attending such an institution.
In second year, we learnt about socialisation – the process by which an individual grows accustomed to the behaviour and culture of his surroundings. My school was fairly liberal, my roommate’s convent a little lesser and another friend’s school in Chennai could not, within any reasonable definition of the term, be classed ‘liberal’. And so perhaps I can understand when my friend is hesitant to wear a skirt – something I wore to school daily for six years, but an article of clothing that hasn’t quite found a place in her wardrobe in the past eighteen years. Perhaps I can even excuse the boy who does a double take when he sees a bunch of us in dresses – not because he is a lecher, but because it must be strange to come from a town where jeans were considered pushing the envelope, to a campus where we are free to wear (more or less) anything and everything that fits our fancy!
We are quick to call teachers out on their opinions on everything from prostitution to the death penalty, but perhaps if we paused to listen in between their arguments, if our ears did not perk only at the utterance of a seemingly controversial statement – perhaps, we’d have a little more insight on why people speak the way they do.
My point is only this – that our socialisation processes vary greatly from those around us, even if we’ve lived in the same city. Our opinions aren’t entirely our own in that other people have influenced them; they are in part a product of our socialisation. What’s been drilled into your head by teachers repeating themselves over and over, rules laid out by your parents, admonitions by aunts and uncles, advice from neighbours… the list of influences is endless. It’s not always possible to trace where particular views you hold stem from – why you think smoking is “wrong”, why your innate reaction to a debate on drugs is that they should be banned.
Perhaps part of being at law school is questioning these inbuilt mechanisms, of why we react the way we do, of unlearning our socialisation and starting afresh so we may formulate opinions that we can truly call our own. But this process is a gradual one – one that cannot be galvanised by shoving opinions down people’s throats, which will only leave them retching and confused. And at the end of this process of rediscovering the self’s true opinions, if we find someone does genuinely believe in views opposed to your own – engage, discuss, debate, but beyond that – pray, leave them be.
It’s often quoted that the liberals have become what they hate, and I don’t think I can better phrase my observations of discussions and debates on campus.
Try beginning discussions with “What do you think about… ?” rather than “In my opinion”. If you want to hear your own opinions parroted in another voice, you will find the Talking Tom app is a lot less effort than keeping people around. Next time, try sitting next to the person you so vehemently disagree with (or, would it be more acceptable to my audience, if I said ‘the person who vehemently disagrees with you’?), and talk to him. You’ll probably learn a lot more than you did shouting him down from the other end of class.