17-year-old liberal: Peer pressure silencing conservative students; 'To learn, you debate'

Oliver Kline - KATU image

PORTLAND, Ore. – Political differences are certainly nothing new, but some believe civil discourse and dialogue have gotten much worse since the 2016 election.

One local high school student says it's gotten so bad that certain political views are being suppressed by peer pressure.

Oliver Kline, 17, is about to enter his senior year at Grant High School. The self-described liberal is in the majority in deep-blue Portland.

He's now getting attention for his call to respect the views of those he might disagree with.

The 2016 presidential battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton dominated headlines. But at 15 years old, Kline wasn't paying attention. Once the winner became clear, Oliver said he was stunned.

“Even before the election I didn't care much about politics,” said Kline. “When I learned that Trump was elected I kind of just wondered to myself ‘how could this happen? What were these people thinking?’”

He became interested in politics and political debate.

Over the past two years, he's noticed something at his liberal-leaning school.

“I have a lot of friends who either are conservative or even share some conservative thoughts who tell me they can't express those ideas because of peer pressure and sort of a culture in which those ideas are looked down upon,” said Kline.

He put his thoughts on paper, and his guest column appeared in The Oregonian; a 17-year-old liberal advocating for more conservative thought.

“The ideological monotony within my school is painfully obvious,” he said. “So this peer pressure culture isn't really targeting me, but I feel like if conservatives today are being silenced, what's protecting me tomorrow.”

Kline believes open, honest, respectful debate is crucial, even on core ideological issues where compromise seems impossible.

"I’m just a seventeen year old kid, I don’t know everything in the world. But to learn, you debate and you grow," Kline said.

“Just debating, even if it's something that you're unwilling to compromise on, the worst that's going to happen is that you'll learn from that experience, you're going to grow, maybe you'll learn a new argument you didn't think about that supports your side.”

You can read Kline’s full opinion piece below:

I take pride in the progressive political culture of Portland, Oregon, my hometown. But, as a senior in high school, I've noticed a pervasive pattern of progressive peer pressure and self-censorship that is silencing diversity of thought. This "New Inquisition" on the left is dangerous to our most important mechanism of social progress: free and open debate.

The ideological monotony within my school is painfully obvious. I'm now entering my fourth year in high school, but have yet to meet a single student willing to openly declare himself a Republican. Is it really possible that, out of the 1,500 kids in my school, not a single one even leans conservative? No, it's not. Instead, a number of students have told me privately that peer pressure and their fear of incurring the wrath of today's blasphemy-hunting political scolds has led them to keep silent.

Don't get me wrong, I am not a conservative, nor am I a Trump supporter. But I'd like to be able to talk to one, to debate with one, to learn from one. However, in an atmosphere where different ideas are met with harsh disapproval, this simply cannot happen.

Last year, a history teacher at my school was denounced after he published an open letter expressing his belief that "'rape culture' is a theoretical construct that is ill-defined." His letter spread across the school like wildfire, leading to protests and to local news networks picking up the story. Many in the school and the larger community advocated for his termination, and he was publicly shamed for spreading "hateful ideas."

I didn't agree with the bulk of what he said, but that's beside the point. Anyone should have the right to openly express their ideas and opinions without being met by virtual pitchforks and wanted posters. Even if his opinions were wrong -- no, especially if his views were wrong -- the American way to deal with it is to have a free and open debate about the validity of his ideas, not a Soviet-style show trial or public shaming.

In any event, condemning and shaming people won't change any minds. In a culture of stark political polarization like ours, you cannot win people over by demanding they be punished for wrong-think. You change minds with debate, with civil discourse and through the battle of ideas. You demonstrate your ideas are better by using evidence and reason, not coercion and disciplinary measures.

I ought to know. As captain of our school's "Mock Trials" club and a member of the national championship Grant High School Constitution Team, I've seen the power of free and open debate in action. It is America's greatest weapon. It is the means by which the founders of this country forged a nation from 13 disparate colonies and by which today's majority national consensus in favor of civil rights, women's rights, gay rights and care for the environment was constructed. This consensus did not exist 50 years ago. It was midwifed by free speech and open debate.

My father, who grew up as this consensus was being forged, told me that free speech was the prerequisite for all the victories his generation of progressives achieved. Yet sadly many of today's progressives would betray that legacy and abandon free speech and open debate. He still fondly remembers sitting with friends in all-night coffee shops arguing and debating politics and philosophy, calling it "among the happiest and most formative times of my life."

Will my generation of kids get to experience these all-night coffee shop debates? Will we have the life-changing chance to test out different ideas and political viewpoints without fear of censure from today's New Inquisition?

I can't say. But what I can say is that the students in my school are clearly conflicted. On the one hand, many agree with the 40 percent of millennials surveyed by Pew Research Center who feel that "offensive speech" should be prohibited. But yet, when the question "Do we, as a school, need more diversity of opinion?" was asked to a class of mine, all twenty-plus students unanimously agreed that we do.

Some said that they would like to hear another point of view. Others said they'd like to share their own. But every student agreed that more needed to be done to foster a culture in which ideas, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, can be shared openly and freely.

I honestly don't know the answer to how we can revitalize free speech, civil discourse and all-night coffee shop debates. But I do know how to find the answer: let's debate it.

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