It's important to say what we actually thinkOliver Rhodes

I remember my very first formal for a few reasons. Obviously, I remember the tingling buzz of finally being here: our demeanours were precise, to be sure, but we were enjoying our newly-found personas.

Then I remember something slipped out. I could barely muster another word. I felt like I was the estranged uncle lately arrived at the dinner party. Was it my imagination acting up, or did I really see my new Director of Studies glare at me from the other end of the hall? All of a sudden, the flow of the conversation had frozen up.

Open conversation is beneficial to everyone, regardless of what they believe

I’ll come clean: I voted for Brexit. I remember that occasion because it’s when I discovered that saying so would be a taboo.

Universities are institutions where we go to challenge and be challenged. But for them to remain so requires everyone to mean what they say, and to say what they mean. That isn’t always easy. But it’s the only way forward, especially in such divided times.

What bothered me the most about that dinner was my failure to fulfil my duty as someone with an opinion. In the subsequent awkwardness, I started making excuses, rather than cogent explanations, for what I had said. ‘But’ was the only prefix I could muster to any subsequent statement. Why was I apologising for my own views rather than substantiating them?

Intellectual honesty is the only way to take something away from an argument

This was a problem for me throughout my first months at university. I was coming into contact with people whose worldviews were very different to my own. The university may not be as diverse as it should be, but take it from me: it is more diverse than a boys-only private school in Edinburgh.

I met my girlfriend in our first term. She’s from Birmingham, and of mixed heritage. We quickly realised we had different opinions on some things. She brought up words I had never heard before in day-to-day conversation: intersectionality, oppression, normativity. They were the buzzwords of a whole new domain of conversation for me.

One day I made her very upset (she was only a friend at the time). We were discussing cultural appropriation, and I couldn’t understand her sensitivity to it. The debate got personal. That’s when I appreciated just how our personal experiences fundamentally shaped our differing perceptions on big issues. I still regret that encounter. Perhaps I was not listening, or perhaps I came across too dogmatic. Probably both.

It worries me that some views on campus – mainly conservative ones – don’t often get a fair hearing

But as much as I did not want to cause offence, I was also feeling frustrated. I sensed that there was something missing in my interactions with some people concerning politics. What seemed missing was a shared faith in the pursuit of consensus; a shared commitment to talk with, rather than against, each other. What frustrated me was that I felt constrained rather than liberated by my perspectives.

So I set myself a challenge. I realised that I was good for nothing if I could not clearly articulate what my opinions were. What was the point of eloquently defending the fiscal policy of Henry Tudor if I couldn’t muster the courage to defend my decision to vote Leave? My credibility, indeed my dignity, demanded that.

It was my weekly supervisions that proved invaluable in helping me articulate my personal views. In those daunting hours I learned that we don’t simply say what we think: the act of articulation enables our thoughts to take shape. That’s why actually saying what we think is so important.

It’s important to ask questions if you don’t understand or disagree with someone

Supervisions are the optimum conversation. Both sides have a shared commitment to pursuing some form of truth, and build on each other’s thoughts in a dynamic and constructive way, over an extended period of time. They are as much about listening as about talking. Nobody wins or loses: they are explorations, which hopefully reveal new pathways of knowledge to explore.

I tried to take that frame of mind into my less formal conversations. In doing so, I hoped to encourage others, with whom I disagreed, to do the same. It certainly improved my discussions, which before often felt like a siege. Because I was accepting and accommodating challenges to my views all the time, I had more opportunities to sharpen up my own arguments.

On an issue as divisive as Brexit, we should be having more, not fewer, perspectives

When I was wrong, I began to admit it. It was certainly a bitter pill. But intellectual honesty – the willingness to admit that we are all fallible – is the only way to take something away from an argument. Speaking for myself, it’s something you only learn after you realise you’re no longer top of the class, like in school.

Equally so, I learned to assert my opinions without deferring to popular orthodoxy. I don’t use that last word lightly, nor do I want to exaggerate. But it worries me that some views on campus - mainly conservative ones - don’t often get a fair hearing. Too many times I have kept my mouth closed when I should have been honest about what I thought. And I’ve had one too many private conversations with people who feel the same to dismiss this as trivial.

It is with this rationale, as imperfect as it surely is, that I have begun to understand that peculiarly awkward Freshers’ Formal. Mainstream perceptions of Leave voters do more harm than good and encourage a reliance on lazy narratives. On an issue as divisive as Brexit, we should be having more, not fewer, perspectives. We could make a start by removing the taboo over voting Leave.


Mountain View

Hate the opinion, not the person

More broadly, intelligent assertiveness commands respect regardless of your views. But it requires a confidence that can only be attained through practice. That’s why it’s important to ask questions if you don’t understand or disagree with someone. Crucially, it’s important to be willing to say what you think even if the social context deters you.

I don’t want this to be a partisan point: open conversation is beneficial to everyone, regardless of what they believe. Put another way: bad ideas unspoken remain bad ideas. The only way to make them good ideas is to maintain an environment in which they can be openly scrutinised, without unnecessary prejudice. In today’s polarised society, it may help bridge some gaps.