FEATURE: Free Speech Claremont, A Club for Civil Conversation

Earlier this week, the Claremont Independent was fortunate enough to conduct an interview with Elliot Raskin, a freshman at Pitzer College, and founder of Free Speech Claremont (FSC). Free Speech Claremont, founded in February of this year, aims to provide a forum for students to “respectfully and meaningfully engage with a variety of viewpoints.”

Open to all students of the Claremont Colleges (the 5C’s)—which includes Pomona, Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna, Scripps, and Pitzer Colleges—the group has so far hosted three events to discuss issues including the definition of hate speech, the University of Haifa controversy at Pitzer College, and the state of “Meme Queens of the 5Cs,” a student run meme page.

The Independent was able to ask Elliot and the FSC Leadership Board about their motivations for starting the club, its reception at the 5Cs, and where they hope to take the club in the near future.

Q: What made you decide to start Free Speech Claremont?

Although the Claremont Colleges are an esteemed group of institutions, we believe that each can do more to facilitate conversation between people with differing viewpoints.

We believe that encountering different viewpoints and ideologies are integral to higher education. The FSC leadership board is politically diverse and we rarely reach a consensus about topics. But we all see a need to participate in dialogue and to encounter different viewpoints in a respectful and productive manner. Ultimately, FSC is based on the idea that we all need to talk with and humanize each other even when we fundamentally disagree.

Throughout the course of the past semester, each of us was surprised by how much we learned from talking with those whom we disagree with. We hope to continue hosting discussions and creating a place for different perspectives to interact.

Q: There’s a lot of ideological division at the 5Cs. How do you think Free Speech Claremont can be a way to bridge some of the gaps between students of different viewpoints?

FSC: We want to emphasize respectful cross-viewpoint dialogue as a means of fostering viewpoint diversity. It’s easy to imagine that the 5Cs are ideologically homogeneous; often, students only feel comfortable expressing certain viewpoints. We want to change that culture. If students aren’t comfortable discussing their own opinions, we can’t learn from each other nor improve. FSC is a nonpartisan, unbiased and open space to discuss each of our different viewpoints and grow in understanding of our own. Each of our meetings is mediated by one of the FSC leaders to maintain a respectful and productive conversation. We hope to continue to provide a place to listen and interact with viewpoints from all ideological spectrums.

Q: How would you characterize the state of free speech at the 5Cs? Has there been any sort of backlash to your attempts to open up the floor to diverse viewpoints?

We think the free exchange of ideas and cross-viewpoint dialogue can be improved across the 5C’s. We don’t advocate for a culture where students can say anything they want without social repercussions, but we’d also like students to feel more comfortable expressing their viewpoints than currently.

We’ve been condemned for being right-wing, left-wing, and centrist and spreading a political agenda. In reality, FSC is strictly nonpartisan and has no political affiliation. But these accusations are understandable considering how the language of “free speech” is often utilized by provocateurs who have no interest in productive discourse. We’ve received no backlash for our core purpose of cross-viewpoint dialogue. We believe that everyone—across ideology and the political spectrum—has a vested interest in creating a culture where we are free to talk with each other and productively express ourselves without repercussion.

Q: You haven’t shied away from discussing highly controversial topics. What’s your method for tackling these issues?

We begin each discussion by going over our club guidelines, which include no insults, no ad hominem attacks, and the welcoming of all opinions. We also remind each of our members that listening is just as important as speaking. We encourage all attendees to participate in the discussions not with a goal to further their own opinion, but to understand others’ views. Most importantly, we advocate for a mutual respect for viewpoints, arguments, and each other.

Q: Are there any specific issues that you think are particularly important to free speech at the 5Cs?

Viewpoint orthodoxy and groupthink are issues that are particularly prominent within the 5C’s in regards to free expression. Often, these issues create difficulty for individuals voicing their opinion due to a fear that their social status will be damaged if their beliefs and opinions don’t align with the opinion of the majority. Our biweekly discussion are a place for students to be able to productively voice their opinions and be heard without undue social ramifications.

Q: When you graduate a few years from now, what would you like Free Speech Claremont to have accomplished?

We hope to instill a sense of excitement in the 5C student body about interacting with a wide-array viewpoints in a respectful manner inside and outside the classroom. We want to embed a sense of trust on-campus so that students understand that disagreement doesn’t imply that anyone is a bad or evil person. This process takes months and even years to build; we’ve just started to accomplish this in our biweekly discussions. Our main goals are to continue to host really interesting discussions and to positively impact dialogue and discourse culture across the 5C’s.

Q: Do you think it’s important that all points of view be represented in discourse? If so, how do you think we should ensure that everyone can communicate in an open and respectful manner? If not, why, and which sorts of views do you think should be excluded?

We believe that dialogue should be inclusive with as many perspectives as possible welcomed in conversations to create an environment of growth and learning for all. When more diverse opinions and experiences are examined, we’re challenged to think more broadly and to consider more perspectives. We believe that it is entirely possible—and necessary—to maintain respectful dialogue, even when ideologies differ radically. Maintaining this respect is the responsibility of all participants and it’s sometimes understandably really difficult. We’ve tried to embed a culture of dialogue before discourse. Before wrestling with an idea/perspective, we need to understand it. Only then are discourse and debate truly productive.

We think free expression should be treated differently on a societal scale than at a small liberal arts college. We seek to cultivate a culture of respect across ideological differences at the 5C’s in a manner that isn’t possible across a society. To create this culture of respect, insults, ad-hominem attacks, and unnecessary aggression in discussions should be strongly discouraged. We don’t tolerate ad hominem attacks or direct threats in our discussions because we view them as the antithesis of productive discussion and cross-viewpoint dialogue. We also have no interest in engaging with those who only seek to provoke instead of learn or grow.

Each of us on the FSC leadership team have struggled with the last question. We’re by no means proponents of absolute free speech and instead are passionate about ideological diversity, cross-viewpoint dialogue, and the free exchange of ideas. Certain basic principles and characterizations of reality may be difficult to talk about, especially with high emotions involved. If a topic can be discussed in a productive, respectful, and meaningful manner, then we believe it can and should be part of public dialogue.

Q: We noticed that in the Meme Queens discussion that people approached the topic from very different premises. Some thought it was incontestable that America is a patriarchal and racist country, while others strongly pushed back on this idea. When people cannot agree on these basic characterizations of reality, how do you proceed?

As an organization, we don’t strive for agreement or consensus. We’re interested in substantial and thought-provoking discussions that make us question our ideas and perspectives. We don’t mind radical disagreements; we welcome them. However, we want to avoid radical disagreements that lead to disrespect and acrimony. The idea that America is a patriarchal and racist country is a discussion well-worth having, even amongst disagreement. It’s an incredibly complex topic and anything but a basic characterization of reality. Discussions become more difficult with topics such as free will and objectivity, which are truly foundational characterizations of reality. Luckily, we’ve shied away from those topics and focus more on concepts that encourage productive and respectful cross-viewpoint dialogue—such as if America is a patriarchal racist society.

Q: Lastly, you spoke in your last meeting about a partnership with BridgeUSA. What is the nature of this partnership and how will it change your club?

Next year, we’ll be transitioning from Free Speech Claremont and becoming the Claremont Colleges chapter of BridgeUSA, which is a student-led organization dedicated to ideological diversity, constructive and responsible discourse, and a solution-oriented political culture. We’ll still host discussions about topics and issues relevant to politics and campus life but we’ll simultaneously be expanding our focus to co-host events with other organizations. The core mission of the club—fostering cross-viewpoint dialogue—will remain the same.

 

If you’re interested in joining Free Speech Claremont/Bridge USA Claremont Colleges or have any questions please reach out to eraskin@students.pitzer.edu.

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