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New York Times columnist Frank Bruni spoke at Middlebury on January 9, delving into the relationships between identity politics and free speech.

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NY Times Columnist Urges Students to Challenge Their Presumptions

January 14, 2019

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – New York Times columnist Frank Bruni appeared before a full house in Wilson Hall on January 9 and decried how identity politics, fueled largely by social media, is polarizing America and pulling us further apart from each other.

“Identity politics too often separates us,” Bruni declared. “It sorts us. It tucks us into cliques and clusters without pathways and points of connection between them, so we regard each other from a distance that amplifies mistrust, nurtures misunderstanding, and feeds a sense of conflict and competition. It too often erodes common ground.”

The combined effect of digital technology, the Internet, and social media has been the opposite of what it should have been and what it was intended to be, he continued. “They were supposed to hasten our voyages to new viewpoints and revelatory information, but instead they have shrunk our fields of view and edited out everything beyond the frame.

“They herd us with ever-greater efficiency into like-minded cliques, into gated communities of political, intellectual, and cultural thought; they trap us into sameness, not giving us diverse experiences, but versions of the same experience over and over again.”

The connection between technology and identity politics was Bruni’s central thesis. He pointed out that online music services such as Pandora and Spotify “are designed to keep giving us versions of what we already experienced,” and the same thing applies when you buy books from Amazon or stream content from Netflix. “These dynamics are pushing you toward having the same experience over and over again.”

A Middlebury student asks Frank Bruni a question during his talk at Wilson Hall on January 9.

    Facebook and Twitter are culpable too, he said, for echoing back at us “our pre-existing [political] views . . . reassuring us that we are right and letting us marinate in our own convictions.”

    The curation of the news we see online “is geared for narrowness and sameness,” the columnist said. Whereas Americans used to be consumers of reality, now we are designers of our own reality—a reality that Jim Rutenberg of the Times has labeled “The Daily Me.”

    Identity politics in the Internet Age has also reduced our capacity for empathy, and this concerns Bruni, especially on college campuses today.

    Speaking to the students in the audience of nearly 400 people, he said, “I hope you will use these years to become a bigger person rather than a smaller one, to become a broader person rather than a narrower one, because we live in a world right now that’s constantly trying to narrow us. We have to push back against [that pressure], and college is a great, great time to begin doing that.”

    Later he said, “The whole point of being here is to venture across that terrain”—i.e., the different ideas and perspectives available to college students—“and to explore it. You can decide to expand your parameters and to rattle your presumptions. That is the point of education, and I’d argue that it is its highest purpose.

    “Education is about the cultivation of empathy, which in its true form isn’t warm feelings toward members of your tribe; it’s the ability to consider and understand the feelings of somebody else’s [tribe].”

    Bruni continued: “The study of history, literature, languages, and science prepares you to live respectfully in a diverse society by constructing bridges, exhorting you to cross them, and illuminating not just where our experiences diverge but where they dovetail. . . . Emotional safety is an unreasonable expectation. Colleges can’t provide it because neither can life. And intellectual safety is the opposite of what colleges should create.”

    Before taking questions from the audience, the 23-year veteran of the Times newsroom offered a final thought. “Identity politics should never become a cocoon. And it doesn’t have to be, not if it rightly insists that the world understand the hardships that a given group confronts, while also cultivating partnerships and stressing points of connection between groups.”

    The talk, titled “Conversations with Frank Bruni,” was sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council, the Mellon Foundation, and the Office of President Laurie L. Patton. It also was the second of five events in the College’s new series of programs, titled “Listening and Speaking in Public Spheres.” In addition to the students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered in Wilson Hall, an estimated 225 additional people watched a live stream of the talk in Dana Auditorium.

    Reporting by Robert Keren; Photos by Todd Balfour

    6 Comments

    Thank you to the Humanities Council and MC for sponsoring this event. It was very thought provoking with many takeaways for me. I also liked the community building event that required us to engage with our neighbors twice during the evening. Thanks again.

    by Neil Gruber (not verified)

    Wow! Refreshing and very well expressed. Happy to see Midd sponsoring these types of events. I should have signed up for English courses beyond the required English back in the day! My wife, Suzanne Griffin '82, myself and other Midd. alumns we've spoken with have been favorably impressed at how Laurie Patton has dealt with the follow-on to the events a couple of years ago after the initial jolt of having read about them on the front page of the WSJ.

    by Chris Frankel '74 (not verified)

    This sounds like very good advice. I would have hoped that he would have specifically mentioned the outrageous events surrounding Charles Murry's visit some time ago as an example of the evils of cocooning one's views and information collection. I hope that those students who heard the lecture and those people who subsequently read it will take heed of its very important message.

    by Victor G Etting... (not verified)

    Important message for all civically engaged individuals. Radical empathy and intellectual humility are necessary before entering into any reasoned debate. Good to see Middlebury is tackling this issue of political polarization head on. Nice work Dr. Patton. --Cynthia Roenisch '87 P'20

    by Cynthia Roenisch (not verified)

    I am delighted to see the message being discussed on campus and it seems like a message that needs to be reiterated regularly, not only at Middlebury but across higher education, in the wake of the Murray incident. Coincidentally, I've been working my way through Splintering of the American Mind: Indentity Politics, Inequality, and Community on Today's College Campuses, by Johns Hopkins professor William Egginton. In the book Egginton seems to be advancing a similar argument, though, instead of referencing social media and self-curated Netflix viewing as deepening our identity politics divides, he takes this a step further to (re)imagine
     ...View More
    the role of curricula, course readings, and discussions in the classroom setting to set up a different sort of dynamic in the liberal arts college. I wonder if/how the faculty might see their role in creating this kind of academic environment and ensuring that classrooms where ideas from across the spectrum are considered and vigorously debated? -- Lisa Jasinski '02.5.
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    by Lisa Jasinski '02.5 (not verified)

    For me, the core of this problem is an "intellectual relativism" that appears to have taken hold in academia and in society as a whole. The belief that any and all ideas and beliefs, in and of themselves, must be afforded equal consideration in the service of "fairness" needs to be refuted. The fallacy that any and all opinions are worthy of respect lest one "offend" is also absurd. All opinions are worthy of acknowledgement and understanding, and then evaluation by logic, reason, and analysis. The validation of ideas and beliefs comes about by study, discussion, and debate, not
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    simply because they exist.
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    by paul mallchok (not verified)

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