Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Elly Brown on Viewpoint Diversity, Civil Dialogue, and Conversion

I recently posted here at Mirror of Justice remarks offered by Allison Berger in connection with Princeton University's "She Roars!" alumnae reunion. I am now posting remarks at the same event by Elly Brown, another Princeton alumna. Elly was one of the top students of her year, graduating summa cum laude in Politics and earning various other awards and distinctions. As an undergraduate, she was a leader in Princeton Pro-Life and the Anscombe Society (Princeton's student group advocating chastity and sexual integrity). In her remarks, Elly discusses her efforts to promote civil dialogue with supporters of abortion and others with whom she disagrees and makes some valuable points about truth-seeking and conversion--including her own conversion to Catholicism. 

Remarks of Elly Brown

I would like to begin with a poll. I’m sure that all of us are aware of online comment sections under articles or posts on social media. I am curious: how many of you think that these comment sections are a reflection of the liberal arts ideal of thought diversity and the free exchange of ideas? Why do we not find this to be the case? After all, comment sections often represent a diverse array of viewpoints. Still, it seems that something is missing, and that mere viewpoint diversity is not enough. I argue that comment sections do not live up to the liberal arts ideal because they do not view persons as truly persons – that is, those having an intellect and a will, who are more than the summation of whatever views they are currently expressing. Comment sections dehumanize, reducing interlocutors to the views of the “enemy,” to someone who must be taken down. I further argue that if a University does not have a fuller picture of the human person in addition to viewpoint diversity, the University is nothing more than a real-life comment section, with the “enemy” mindset that we so often find online.

Thankfully, Princeton in many ways has overcome this comment section, enemy mindset, though there are certainly areas for improvement as well. For the remainder of my talk, then, I would like to lay out some of the specific ways – taken from my own experience as a Princeton student – that Princeton has indeed lived up to the liberal arts ideal, and then draw from these experiences concrete proposals that could lead to more improvement.

First, I have witnessed many successes at Princeton regarding thought diversity on women’s issues. In the larger public sphere, the comment section mentality is often experienced most acutely surrounding women’s issues. Often, women are dehumanized and expected to hold a specific predetermined set of beliefs on social and political issues, with little regard to their underlying humanity and the fact that they have intellects that can guide them to their own conclusions. Furthermore, women who disagree with this predetermined set of beliefs are too often viewed as the enemy to be taken down. The tendency for this mindset is perhaps greatest when it comes to the issue of abortion. As president of Princeton Pro-Life my first through third years at Princeton, I felt the consequences of this mindset to a certain degree. Many expressed confusion about why I would take up such a role, since being a pro-life woman leader seemed to be an inherent contradiction working within the comment section framework, anyway.

One of my main projects as president was overcoming this mindset of viewing others – especially other women – as the enemy for holding differing viewpoints on these hot button issues. To do so, Princeton Pro-Life began collaborating with the Women's Center, which generously accepted multiple offers to host and co-sponsor our events. My first year, the Women's Center co-sponsored a lecture on the ethics of abortion and women’s rights. My sophomore year, the Women*s Center co-hosted a “Pro-Life, Pro-Woman” open house to discuss pro-life feminism with the broader campus community and find points of agreement among students with diverse viewpoints. Later, Princeton Pro-Life and the Women's Center jointly hosted a screening of the documentary “Pro-Life Feminist” featuring Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa – the president of New Wave Feminists, which was kicked out of the Women’s March for being pro-life. After the film screening, the Women's Center held a discussion about the film and how those of differing viewpoints can collaborate to improve women’s lives and uphold human dignity. All of these efforts brought together segments of campus that may have otherwise viewed each other as enemies for having different views. By having these conversations, participants saw each other not as enemies, but as human beings mutually seeking the good.

These successes notwithstanding, there are ways the University could do more to encourage more of these humanizing discussions. Primarily, the University could encourage centers (such as the Women*s Center and Carl A. Fields Center) to intentionally and more often host discussion with the aim of bringing together diverse viewpoints in order to similarly overcome the enemy mentality. Doing so would reduce campus discord surrounding contentious issues and foster fruitful and productive discussion beyond the comment section practice of merely trying to defeat the other side.

Another encouraging feature of Princeton that is a testament to its viewpoint diversity is the ubiquity of conversions – including my own. By conversion, I refer not only to religious conversion, but also philosophical and political conversion, as well as more small-scale changes in perspective. Conversion can be a scary word, but in practice, it really amounts to a receptivity to the truth and whatever destination to which it takes you. I myself converted to Catholicism, as well as changed my mind on a number of contentious political and social issues. At Princeton, though, my convert status made me the norm, not the exception. I witnessed the conversions – big and small – of many if not most of my friends and classmates, which indicates the receptivity on the part of others to hearing arguments and an openness to being persuaded by good ones. The openness to conversion on the part of my peers is the antithesis of the comment section mentality, because it displays a willingness to move beyond the category of enemy when considering views other than one’s own.

To further encourage this culture of conversion, I propose that professors and preceptors should more explicitly teach their students the importance of charity – a willingness to consider an argument in the best light and fully understand it before attacking or critiquing it. I admit, being a charitable student and scholar is not always easy. My own natural scholarly tendency is to locate the enemy and attack. However, explicitly encouraging students to be charitable in the classroom will certainly translate into a greater respect for the diverse viewpoints of others.

In short, based on my experiences as a student, there is much to celebrate at Princeton. In many ways, Princeton successfully fights the comment section mentality and fosters a culture that not only tolerates but respects diverse views. And with a more intentional focus on fostering humanizing campus-wide discussions as well as the virtue of charity, Princeton can do even better.


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