Studying abroad this semester is one of the best decisions I have made during my college career. The lovely climate in the south of France, the challenging coursework, and incredible people have made the experience worthwhile. The students here at SciencesPo are bright and gifted linguistically. One of my fellow students certainly has a way with words. We were discussing the best ways to write for a campus newspaper. We argued back and forth, with him spewing multiple choice words at me, until he paid me the following compliment:
“Well, at least I didn’t call you a c***.”
This is more like a sorry attempt at consolation, if you ask me. No pre-departure orientation can prepare you for the number of times you hear wildly offensive words — in your own language. I jokingly reminded this friend that although English was not his first language, certain words are seen as more offensive than humorous.
Study abroad advisors entreat us to be tolerant and understanding of other cultures. I can recall many a rainy Saturday morning sitting in a very grey room in a very grey chair watching a very grey PowerPoint presentation regarding the importance of cultural awareness.
However, who defines an offense? You. Who polices these offenses? You. Although I do not appreciate the sentiment, even jokingly, expressed in the first sentence I will always promote free speech. Recently, a friend said to me, “Students will never be truly intelligent if they do not allow themselves to be challenged.” Now, she does not mean challenged in the sense of academically rigorous courses or long nights studying. She means allowing our views to be challenged. Allowing ourselves to be made uncomfortable by another’s views.
When faced with views that are offensive or unsettling to us, we should engage with the person and provide an alternative perspective. There is no point in squelching opposition because your own arguments will become stronger if you allow yourself to be challenged. I am certainly not advocating for profanity in education, nor am I promoting direct targeting, hatred, or bigotry. Rather, I am suggesting that we all allow a little more pushback to our own views.
In the same way, although I would personally prefer for individuals to utilize varied vocabulary and express themselves in methods apart from curse words, my preferences pertaining to this matter are essentially inconsequential.
We must learn to truly listen to the views of the opposite side rather than completely dismiss them at the outset. Engaging with those around you helps you to further understand why they are the way they are. We will never understand the “otherness of the other” without first addressing the framework and filters with which we listen.
So explain to someone how a word or sentiment makes you feel, but don’t shut them out for that’s the worst we can do for each other.