Upon hearing critical remarks from students and faculty of color toward Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Initiative, I was hardly surprised. This apprehensive response is one that is rather typical among my generation, fueled by emotions of fear and bitterness that are guided by a lack of trust. 

Several faculty of color have drafted a letter to the University to express their concern with the Bellarmine Initiative. Further, some students are concerned with the University’s intentions with the project, referencing “White Saviorism.” 

These sentiments point toward a generational phenomenon of distrust and cynicism. In order to understand why such a deprecatory response is virtually instinctual among today’s young adults, we have to look at today’s means of thinking as a collective. Then, we can reflect on the repercussions of such shared notions and begin to ask ourselves: what do we need to change? 

Photo by Szabo Viktor on Unsplash.

It seems as though a large concern with the Bellarmine Initiative stems from a lack of trust surrounding the benefits of opening a new academic unit outside of Fairfield University’s main campus. 

Some claim students from underrepresented communities will not benefit from what is perceived as complete separation from the University, while others allude to the University not being ready for such an undertaking. These narratives, however, are not cogent, but rather, are based on doubt of the University’s intent. 

This doubt arises from perceived flaws with the University’s neutral political stance on issues surrounding race, by which the University encourages free political expression among students. As a predominantly White institution, Fairfield University has been under much scrutiny by the public eye concerning their initiatives to increase diversity on campus. The Fairfield Mirror, CT Mirror, and CTPost have published articles pertaining to incidents in the past that have resulted in criticism of the University; the most recent of which concerned the removal of a Black Lives Matter flag from the student health center. 

The Bellarmine Initiative is targeting underrepresented students from the city of Bridgeport, the majority of whom are non-White. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 2021 only 38.1% of the Bridgeport population is White. This statistic alone causes many among our generation to immediately become skeptical, questioning the potential good that the University is attempting to do. More often than not, initiatives affecting minority students are sensitized and criticized in light of generational cynicism. 

Fairfield University, in partnership with the Diocese of Bridgeport, has carefully thought out, planned for and outlined the proposal for the Bellarmine Initiative. Means of finance, student mental health, transportation, student life, and academia have been discussed and organized. Further, intention has been clarified in correlation with Fairfield’s Jesuit mission; the initiative is part of the University’s commitment to make higher education more accessible. 

So why still are we so apt to remain critical? This is not to say that we shouldn’t question certain aspects of the initiative that need to be carefully considered and thought out by the University. As humans, we are naturally curious creatures and innovation revolves around challenging others. What is missing, however, is a willingness to remain open and engage in productive conversation about the University’s intent and methods. 

We have turned so far away from the practice of constructive feedback that we are able to dismiss promising concepts entirely, with ease. This is a result of our generation’s current way of thinking, which is ruled by fear and largely shaped by “cancel culture.” 

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, cancel culture is “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.” Under the definition on their website, it is stated that the first known use of this term was in 2016, just six years ago. 

As a young adult, I have observed this type of behavior by others through social media on a daily basis. Such a culture revolves around the notion that it is acceptable for fear to serve as a tactic to silence others’ beliefs, especially those which are political. 

For instance, if one were to express a belief in today’s day and age that is deemed incorrect or unwelcome in the social media world, that individual would be subject to ostracism. Others would be quick to override their social media feed with hateful comments, attacking their character based solely upon what they have gathered through that singular belief shared. No wonder we are fueled so heavily by emotions of trepidation. 

What I still have yet to fully understand is why we have normalized this. 

I can admit that there are certain beliefs that are harmful– beliefs subjecting other people to an inferior status or harm. However, I can’t say that it’s ever justifiable to attack a person’s character with such vulgarity on the Internet. This way of thinking and acting is entirely unproductive and inhumane. It instills fear in each and every one of us in what is essentially mainstream bullying that lends toward a collective way of thinking.

Rather than welcoming multiple viewpoints or taking the time to assess what each brings to the table, we search aimlessly for one ‘correct’ avenue of thought, pressuring others to follow suit. There are two theories that appear to explain the reason for this. 

The first is the spiral of silence theory, which states humans are more willing to express an opinion that they perceive as popular by the majority, inhibiting expression of opinion when ideas are not mainstream. This theory was developed in the 1960’s and 70’s by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in an attempt to describe “collective opinion formation and societal decision making regarding issues that are controversial or morally loaded.” Noelle-Neumann’s theory is based on the premise that as social creatures, we fear social isolation and ostracism by others. Therefore we look to notions that characterize predominant public opinion, largely displayed on the Internet, to assess our self-expression. 

The “public opinion” promoted in mainstream media is not a true representation of the public, but rather, the opinions that others gravitate toward out of fear of social isolation. 

In the past couple of decades, public opinion has centered around a perception of Fairfield University as unsupportive of its minority students, which is said to be shown by the removal of the Blag Lives Matter flag. Those who are critical of the University’s actions, or lack thereof, for supporting underrepresented students on campus are highly willing to express their opinions, since their beliefs correspond with “public opinion.” 

It is important to recognize that there are most likely many students and faculty who feel differently; for example, some feel that the University supports its underrepresented students well and continues to work with a sincere intent of improving campus life for minority students. According to the spiral of silence theory, however, these individuals will choose not to express their opinions publicly, out of fear. 

The second idea that lends into the reasoning for such apprehension is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is “the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.” 

Those who believe the University does not have minority students’ best interest in mind will most likely process the Bellarmine Initiative with skepticism, before even grasping a true understanding of the project. No matter the University’s actions or intent, the project will seemingly be interpreted as disingenuous.

In addition to the role of the spiral of silence theory and confirmation bias, we are made to believe that it is reprehensible to share an opinion on a topic without first being wholly “educated” on said topic. If you speak out on a topic without said “education”, you are subject to immense criticism. 

This then eradicates the most important method of learning – through others in conversation. If no one were to speak out falsely on currently held notions or beliefs, there would be no progress in generational thinking. 

It then seems important to encourage multiple diverse viewpoints, both true and false. When false conceptions are allowed to be expressed without alienating criticism, there is a capacity for growth and productive learning. We are too busy fearing an attack on our character for misspeaking on a topic that we may want to learn more about, when really we should fear unanimity of thought. 

I will end with a quote from Jennifer Anderson, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Fairfield University, in response to the removal of the Black Lives Matter flag.

“The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity; it arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”