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by Michael Ward
As a fellow of one of the colleges at the University of Oxford, I have the responsibility of being senior member (faculty supervisor) of two student-run societies, the C. S. Lewis Society, a literary and theological discussion group, and Oxford Students for Life, a group that aims to promote a culture in which the unborn, the disabled, the terminally ill, and other vulnerable minorities have a place.
In recent years, the pro-life group has discovered how deeply people at Oxford disagree not only with its viewpoint but also with its very right to exist and hold meetings. On one occasion, the group had permission to stage a debate on abortion rescinded at just a few hours’ notice because of a threat of disruption from students who objected to their college hosting such a discussion.
On another occasion, the opposition was subtler. We were interrupted halfway through a meeting and advised by a college official to draw the curtains so that the female Member of Parliament addressing us on gender-selective abortion should not be visible from the quad. Our opponents outside the room felt it would be easier if we were required to hide ourselves from them, rather than that they should avert their eyes from us.
The other society of which I’m faculty supervisor, the C. S. Lewis Society, has experienced no such run-ins with these opponents of free speech on campus. But I mention the Lewis Society because Lewis is a helpful example to consult when considering how to interact with people one disagrees with in an academic environment.
Lewis relished disagreement and debate. George Watson, who attended Lewis’s lectures at Oxford and later worked alongside him at Cambridge, recalls how “Lewis was a Christian conservative from around the age of thirty, which is to say before I knew him; and since I am neither one nor the other, there was never any question of doctrinal influence. If I was not exactly a friend, still less was I a disciple. That in no way altered my sense of admiration and affection. . . . We both thrived on dissent. . . . The best teacher I ever had, and the best colleague, he did not ask or expect me to share his convictions.”
Another student, Derek Brewer, remembers how Lewis would sometimes say, in the course of a tutorial, “I couldn’t disagree more!” but not in a way that indicated he was offended or that Brewer was somehow unjustified in holding an opinion Lewis considered mistaken…
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