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Thoughts on empathy, privilege and freedom of speech at university

Empathy is a uniquely important characteristic as term begins at university.

For many, early September represents the unfolding of new horizons and the illumination of new experiences that are yet to enrich a person’s viewpoint. For others, it may seem like the perfect storm of unknown quantities and pitfalls to be negotiated whilst teetering outside one’s comfort zone. In the maelstrom of the new year, it is easy to feel isolated as an individual entering into what is arguably the largest community you will belong to in your adult life.

Whereas in the intellectual realm, where discussion and debate form the lifeblood of academia, when it comes to the university body in the struggle to be heard debate can feel like a divisive force bent on disharmony rather than unity and understanding. For empathy in its purest form to exist it must occur precisely at the point where awareness and hindsight intersect.

However, as the capacity to interpret the perspective of an individual depends acutely on an ability to recognise how they must feel we are unavoidably limited by our personal experiences, which, in their sum, come together to form layers of understanding from which we stand to contextualise the world around us. In short, as Kierkegaard ascertains, “life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.”

If experiences behave like a mirror to reflect reality in a certain way, it is an impossibility that two individuals, no matter how similar their lives, have identical perspectives on events. The only way to seek to understand why a person believes a certain maxim is to foster discussion in an open, safe environment.

Through dialogue, a once bewildering mass of students can become a community of individuals who, like-minded or otherwise, represent a multiplicity of opportunities to not only discover and hone one’s own views but to better understand the ideas of those with vastly different life experiences.

Freedom of speech itself can be seen from two strongly differing standpoints. Either freedom is at its most fundamental an absolute and any attempts to curtail it represent the most heinous undermining of the very basis of the concept or it can be viewed as broadly positive for the majority but potentially more nuanced a notion in the case of minority voices.

Erasure, whether on the grounds of race, gender, creed, sexuality or ethnicity can occur in an atmosphere of complete freedom as much as it can do when viewpoints are repressed. The adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words may never hurt me” is fundamentally incorrect: views cannot exist within a vacuum.

Herein lies the conundrum. If the freedom to express one’s views leads to an inundation of privileged voices it becomes increasingly more difficult for those with equally important yet less pervasive perspectives to be heard. Does this contradict the most basic ethos of freedom of speech?

There is no place more pertinent to discuss the merits of freedom of speech than in the media which prospers or withers depending on such rights. In an atmosphere where national media outlets in the United Kingdom and beyond, whether print, radio or online, are saturated with the voices of (often unpaid) interns who can afford to subsist for the period of time it takes to establish  a name for themselves in journalism there is a danger that the diversity of the national narrative may suffer.

While the sheer amount of information available to young people has expanded exponentially in recent years, conversely, improvements in technology have only served to exacerbate the issue of increasingly one-sided opinion.

According to research conducted in May 2016 by the Pew Research Centre, 62 per cent of adults in the United States use social media as their primary platform for receiving news.

Facebook’s algorithm tracks your personal interactions and those of your friends to determine what appears on your newsfeed in order to boost revenue by procuring articles tailored to you. It is increasingly unlikely that you will come across articles that make you question your preconceived notions.

While student media is not immune to  the social pressures that shape the national press  it can provide a unique and valuable opportunity for less dominant’ voices to be heard at arguably the most formative period of your intellectual development. The Student is a broad church that seeks to facilitate discussion.

Not only is debate important from a personal perspective but it is vital if an empathetic and open University community is to exist from Welcome Week and beyond.

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