Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

We need spaces to foster open discussion at Hopkins

By NANCY WANG | April 13, 2017


Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier/Public domain Salon de Madame Geoffrin (1812) depicts participation in an Enlightenment-era salon.

We need to bring back salons.

Although nights of reading about Trump led me to this conclusion, I can assure you, it has nothing to do with his hair. Actually, I’m not even talking about hair salons. I’m talking about the Enlightenment kind of salon.

If your knowledge of early modern European history has grown a bit hairy, here’s a basic rundown. During the Enlightenment, people, often women seeking to further their education, hosted salons as a way of exchanging ideas and learning more about various topics. More significantly, these salons were key to breaking social barriers, enabling people of different social statuses and sexes to come together and discuss as equals.

That’s what I find most fascinating about the concept of salons. They were places where people could leave their everyday realms and enter another, where a rough draft of an idea could be developed and shared amongst many people of different backgrounds.

Especially as the Trump administration threatens to divide us, I firmly believe that it is ever more important to rebuild this platform of free conversation. That’s because the opposite of a salon is a bubble. Bubbles obstruct us from understanding each other and instead construct walls of apathy or indifference toward the people outside of them.

I am guilty of this. This past semester, I found myself standing at the pro-life table during the Student Involvement Fair. My first thought was not to learn more about the pro-life club. Unfortunately, it was more like, “Wait a minute. I’m pro-choice, though! What have I gotten myself into?” I then proceeded to flee from the table.

Fortunately, I was able to re-encounter the Hopkins Voice for Life club later on in the semester and learn more about their perspective and (hopefully) regain some of my dignity. For a long time, however, I wondered why my immediate reaction to seeing a pro-life group was not one of acceptance but of fight-or-flight.

Though I’ve run away from many things in life (e.g. my problems), I found it hard to reconcile the fact that I would run away from someone just because I didn’t identify with their opinions or know anything about what they did. By definition, a fight-or-flight response only happens when we feel threatened or under attack. In a world where we are predisposed to associating with people with similar views as us, has meeting even one person with opposing beliefs become so radical as to be perceived as a threat?

It’s okay if you are guilty of this too. Dissolving tensions between contrasting opinions only happens when we recognize that our increasingly sheltered opinions are an issue. Even on campus, we can voice and broaden our perspectives by joining organizations like IDEAL or attending discussions and forums of diverse points of view. Following the results of the SGA executive board election, I am optimistic that under New Horizons, programs for civic engagement and inclusion will only improve in the future.

Each day, we wake up as human beings. We don’t get to choose that; It’s simply who we are. But we can choose to be human. We can choose to appreciate, to understand, to respect and to love others. So be bold in discussing your opinions, and be open to accepting others’ opinions too. Because behind every idea, opinion and thought is one of us.

Nancy Wang is a freshman economics and computer science double major from Westford, Mass.

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