Diversity of Thought vs. Freedom of Thought

If NYU Shanghai prides itself on anything, it’s the diversity of the students. That’s diversity in all forms–from national and linguistic backgrounds to a diverse set of skills to our diverse set of ideological views. NYU Shanghai strives to create an atmosphere that allows all students, no matter from where we may be, to feel unrestrained by each other’s backgrounds or ideologies, and to express ourselves in free and open discourse.

But not everyone feels that our student body is as open a forum as the majority may believe.

Take religion, for example. Though our university professes to tolerate all opposing viewpoints, the education one receives at NYUSH is entirely secular–and when classroom dialogues veer off, there are often comments and slights made against fundamentalist religious views, such as intelligent design. While most NYU Shanghai students take certain things like evolution and the Big Bang as foregone conclusions, there are a minority of students who don’t – and often, their sentiments are overlooked.

When asked how it feels to be someone of faith at NYU Shanghai, our own Mark West had this to say:

“In international communities [such as NYU Shanghai], there tends to be a much higher standard of political correctness… You must be very careful about what you say because you are much more likely to offend others.”

If we as a university truly pride ourselves on open discussion and diverse worldviews, it may be argued that “political correctness” sounds at first like exactly the kind of vibe we don’t want to give off.

Mark’s point seems to be this: diversity of opinion does not necessarily mean freedom of opinion. Rather, when students of many cultural backgrounds come together, every day becomes a veritable minefield of cultural dos and don’ts. For students whose cultural or religious habits are important to them, there will inevitably be moments when your values or beliefs conflict with the social norm. Should you be considerate and give way to the majority every time? At what point does it become appropriate to assert yourself?

According to Mark, those decisions do come often, especially if you’re religious: “In order to have engaging discussions, you may have to risk not being politically correct in order to get your idea across.”

“As a class,” says West, “there needs to be a line where we value understanding over criticism, while still helping our classmates to be aware of social expectations.”

Religion is by no means the only area where NYU Shanghai might be ignoring opportunities for open discussion.

NYUSH students may remember earlier this semester, when the Chinese government banned the discussion of “wrong western thought” in university classrooms. The perceived response among the NYU Shanghai student body was as anyone would expect–that this was blatant suppression of free thought, and a clear violation of human rights.

This is an undeniably and uniquely liberal-western attitude towards the CCP’s actions; it’s not impossible to disagree with the mainstream, and to align with the CCP. Yet all GPS or GPC classroom discussions about the event–where and when they did take place–centered on western news agencies’ coverage. Is it already a foregone conclusion, then, that students enrolled at NYU Shanghai have anti-CCP leanings?

How could that be true when, in fact, amid the Chinese half of the NYU Shanghai student body is a thriving branch of registered CCP members?

The Youth Communist League (YCL) administers many events that NYU Shanghai students often take for granted–like the three-line love poem competition, or the tangyuan festival in the B1 cafeteria last month, where they gave out free dessert.

If there are a sizeable number of students with pro-communist views at our University, why do pro-communist attitudes not come to light more often? Moments where such views would be appropriate are frequent, and the forum space for them certainly exists in the form of outlets like “Collective Voice” and even the GPS/GPC curriculum.

Certainly, our student body is not so segregated that entirely separate spheres of political discussion can exist amid our class and never come into contact with each other.
Half of our student body–half–are Chinese nationals, with a lifetime of first-hand experience with the CCP that no international student shares. Yet none–not even those registered with the CCP–appear quite eager to share their opinion as often as the more outspoken liberal crowd.

Why does the atmosphere at NYU Shanghai seem far more tolerating of western-leaning values than any other, when western students are by no means the majority? Is it the style of teaching? Is it that students of western-leaning values are for some reason more aggressive about asserting those values, leaving the rest of the student body’s “diverse” ideologies with little or no room to flourish?

NYU Shanghai students, particularly western internationals, might consider moving towards letting go of those values–secularism, western democracy, etc–that we so often take for granted as being correct. Because asserting them to be so–even when done unconsciously (e. g. “being in a communist country is actually not so bad”)–will only suggest to others that the only common ground is your ground.

In looking down upon those people whose views don’t match the norm, the most often-employed rhetorical device is to say that another person or group is “close-minded”. People raised with religion reject evolution because they’re close-minded. People who don’t believe in democracy or that people should vote are close-minded about human rights.

But if being close minded is to dismiss others’ opinions without discussing them, is this particular brand of open-mindedness actually another form of being close-minded? In fact, isn’t it true that those same students who are called “close-minded” for their views are the ones who actually spend the most time tolerating views different from their own?

While diverse opinions at NYUSH are in no danger of going extinct, it’s hard for any one student at NYUSH to get a sense of the whole palette of ideologies that does exist at our university. Who knows? Perhaps, given the right set of circumstances, we may see our student body transform from a predominantly western-liberal monochrome into a colorful tapestry of cross-religious discussions/exchanges, pro-communist assemblies, and perhaps even some good old western conservatism to make things dramatic.

This article was written by Michael Margaritoff. Send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Article Photo: Tirza Alberta

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *