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Credit: Alec Druggan

In her column “I'm a legacy student, and I'm not ashamed,” Agatha Advincula tried to show her pride in her legacy status and in her continued family connection to Penn. Advincula quickly faced backlash from readers for not “checking her privilege” in the article. In a Facebook comment section that reads like that of controversial social media influencer, people began deviating away from Advincula’s argument on legacy admissions and instead attacked her as a person. Particularly vicious comments called her “pretentious,” a “fraud,” and worst of all, not being worthy of admission to this institution. As uncivil as they were, these comments didn't actually make the effort to engage with Advincula’s argument. Rather, they smeared her reputation and questioned her right to be at Penn, all in an effort to delegitimize the person behind the article and avoid a conversation that could’ve resulted in a more nuanced dialogue.

These ad hominem attacks have become all too common in discourse both on Penn's campus and across the country. With social media encouraging increased polarization and driving us into pervasive and pernicious echo chambers, the conversations no longer challenge the ways in which we perceive or understand the world around us. We have conditioned ourselves to open our hearts and minds to perspectives that we agree with and construct walls of forced ignorance to protect ourselves from the dangers of opposing opinions and points of view. Seeking only opinions with which we agree deprives us of crucial opportunities to expand our intellectual depth and understanding. Even more perniciously, this manner of thinking causes us to segregate ourselves into communities ruled not by logic, but by group-think mentality.

Penn students must also be wary of the long-term negative consequences of becoming comfortable with publicly eviscerating individuals on the basis of their beliefs. Penn's status as a world-class research institution relies on a student body that is willing to inquire into controversial ideas in order to seek the ultimate truth. But in shaming, ridiculing, and tearing a person’s reputation to shreds, we lose a fundamental aspect of campus vibrancy: intellectual diversity. Just as diversity of race, religion, sex, and socioeconomic status do much to expand our understanding of the world, opinions, as varied as the student body, enable us all to see a new perspective outside our own. But that treasured goal of campus pedagogy is impossible when students are shamed for speaking their thoughts. When students are no longer willing to publicly share their beliefs, the free marketplace of ideas crumbles and an autocracy of dictated thought stands in its place.

This is not a call for individuals to stop challenging each other’s views. On the contrary, a successful campus and democracy rely on healthy public debate. As a community, we must ensure that our discourse is grounded in challenging the perspectives of others and our own rather than cheaply personal shots. So, while this article may cause controversy, I can only hope that it sparks a discourse that is meaningful and representative of the academic mission of this University. 

OLIVER STERN is a College freshman studying Political Science and International Relations. His email is ostern@sas.upenn.edu

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