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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 26, 2024

Op-ed: Freedom of speech and the freedom to listen: The keys to transformative experiences 

In a recent interview for the New York Times, American poet Jane Hirshfield discusses the transformative power of poetry. “A poem … tries to see the wholeness of things from every angle and every side in order to see more clearly,” she says. In one sense, going back to the Ancient Greek origins of the word, “poiesis,” a poem attempts “to make” a new world for the reader as it offers a different view of reality.  

What is a transformative experience? It is an internal process that changes the way we think and understand the world around us. A feeling of sobriety, of clarity, enters our mind when we watch a show-stopping performance, read a life-changing novel or reach that mountaintop.  Transformative experiences broaden our perspectives of reality, particularly when we converse with people different from ourselves. Their words and viewpoints help us break stereotypes.  Attending college should arguably be among the most transformative experiences, with exposure to a wide variety of opinions, ideas, people and ways to see the world. To some degree, we all live in Plato’s cave.  How will we view the world once we step out into the light? 

I was delighted by the possibility that a recent event at Tufts would challenge established, superficial views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This past February, Friends of Israel and Tufts J-Street U co-hosted an Israeli and a Palestinian speaker from the Roots initiative, a network of Israelis and Palestinians, headquartered in the West Bank. The organization seeks to foster mutual understanding, recognition and respect between Israelis and Palestinians through direct contact. Several students who attended the event later informed me what occurred. The speakers noted that they aimed to provide an opportunity for students to listen to creative ideas of conflict resolution, engage in explorative conversation and ask tough questions. Protestors, however, soon disrupted the event, preventing the guests from speaking, hurling disrespectful and offensive mantras toward them and accusing the Palestinian speaker of being a traitor — seemingly just for speaking with an Israeli. Masked, the protesters fled once they were informed that the Tufts police were on their way. 

Returning to Hirshfield, “No good poem is ever going to be accusatory. … If a poem points a finger and shakes it at another person, it is a narrowing of understanding. … There’s been no transformation.” Her sharp observation goes beyond poetry. When we accuse, not only do we reject responsibility for our actions, we remain in the same spot. We have not grown.

But we should see a bigger concern here regarding what happened at the Roots event.  By disrupting the program, the protestors wanted to shut down any conversation and instead impose their own viewpoint onto everyone in the room. They did not allow the audience to listen. They decided, unilaterally and for everyone, what was acceptable and what was not.  

This disruption at Tufts resembles other recent events. At Stanford Law School, students disrupted a conservative federal judge invited to speak. At Hamline University, a student complained to the administration about her instructor’s display of a painting of the Prophet Muhammad that consequently led to the instructor’s dismissal. What needs to be stressed here is not that the painting offended the student, despite all students being informed in advance that it would be shown. The student has the right to her own opinion. Our focus should be on what the student demanded, in the words of journalist Jill Filipovic, “that images of Muhammad never be shown, and by extension that everyone else, no matter what their views or beliefs, behave according to her own conservative religious rules.” Like the disrupters at the Roots and Stanford events, the Hamline student wanted to decide for the entire student body, not letting people think and make choices for themselves. As Filipovic continued, “that is profoundly disrespectful, authoritarian, and anti-intellectual.” And the university agreed to the student’s demands. 

On college campuses across America, more and more individuals feel scared to speak their minds, in fear of being canceled. The current environment constricts opportunities for transformative experiences, particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

To provide healthy engagement in political conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, two years ago several colleagues, students and I launched a student-faculty initiative at Tufts. The “Israel Book Club,” funded through a grant from the Academic Engagement Network, an educational nonprofit that seeks to counter campus antisemitism and supports robust dialogue and learning about Israel and Jewish identity, meets once a week to read and discuss scholarly materials that address the conflict — from all viewpoints. This semester we are diving into “Social Justice and Israel/Palestine: Foundational and Contemporary Debates” (2019). This edited collection offers a wide range of opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, allowing us to understand it from various perspectives and lenses. We hold civilized, respectful discussions, where every participant is free to make their own judgement. To follow Hirshfeld, we try “to see the wholeness of things from every angle and every side in order to see more clearly, truly, to feel more deeply, widely, and, perhaps, tenderly.” The book club has been successful, with nearly 20 students and faculty members participating weekly. 

I believe we should worry when students or anyone else on campus try to impose their worldviews onto others by shutting down a conversation. When we prevent someone from speaking, we prevent more from listening and thinking. The freedom to listen, to ponder others’ words, leads to an exponential spread of ideas. No idea is holy. Every idea should be challenged. If not on college campuses, then where? 

As an instructor here at Tufts, my classes — as all classes do — sometimes wander into topics that some students may find uncomfortable. What should instructors do?  One suggestion put forward is to grant a no-fault “ideological withdrawal” to students who feel uncomfortable with course material. I, instead, seize the opportunity. Without providing my opinion on the subject, we examine the issue from a variety of angles. Students then use reason and logic and learn to build an argument, with evidence, to confront the issue. In the process, they advocate their own ideas. Limiting conversations, never mind shutting them down, stands in opposition to what a liberal arts education should be. To quote Ecclesiastes: “For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; To increase learning is to increase heartache.”

We need to remember that the “D” in DEI stands not just for diversity of people but also diversity of opinions.  The more voices that we can encounter, the more we encourage transformative and meaningful experiences. 

Hedda Harari-Spencer is the Hebrew language coordinator in the Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies at Tufts University. Hedda can be reached at