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Local The Sophist

Through High Street Gate

The first things I noticed about Yale were the gates. It was a cold, downcast day in early April, the kind of day where the wind cuts into your skin no matter how many layers you’re wearing. Dark clouds loomed as I stood silently outside High Street Gate on a college visit, waiting for someone to use their key to open the gate and let me in. I crossed my arms as I shivered, peeking through thick, wrought iron bars at the wide courtyard riddled with busy bulletin boards and arguing students within.

I wondered if the students ever argue about keeping the gates open.

Decades earlier, a different student stands outside a different gate. After Austria was annexed into the totalitarian German Reich, philosopher Karl Popper stood outside the locked gate of a community he had once called his own. A liberal of Jewish descent, Popper fled to New Zealand, where he wrote about what he called an “open society.” An open society involves more than just open gates. An open society allows different ideas to be questioned and tested. An open society invites different people to be part of the discourse. An open society welcomes dissent. Closed societies do just the opposite.

Gateways surround nearly all of Yale. The residential colleges—communities of discourse—are walled off, some separated from the sidewalk by a deep trench, labeled “moat” on the dusty blueprint I pore over nearly a full year later, now a student inside the gates. Yale Buildings and Grounds has an entire section of “Yale Gateways” that lists all the entrances to Old Campus, gates that stand open for longer hours every day, but still close and lock at night. All the gates are listed except the one I stood outside on that rainy April morning.

It is this High Street Gate that teaches me about the responsibility I have now as a student to help make our society an open one.

High Street Gate is not on any official map, construction plan, or directory, but I find it mentioned in one historic letter from a former Yale president. On May 20, 1969, in the midst of an era of student unrest, several members of the Black Panthers, a black nationalist organization, committed a crime in New Haven. Seizing the opportunity to strike against leaders of the group, the FBI put nine men on trial. One year later, activists and opponents planned a rally at Yale to protest these trials in what became known as “May Day.” Earlier that year, these same protestors had gone to Harvard with violent intentions: “Not only will we burn buildings,” the Chief of Staff of the Black Panthers vowed, “we will take lives.” When they arrived, protestors found Harvard had locked its gates. Disaster ensued: Protestors threw rocks and lit fires, sending  214 people to the hospital.

Tensions rose as the same protestors prepared to march at Yale. Mail from distraught alumni, parents, and political leaders poured into President Kingman Brewster’s office. In an open letter responding to the crisis, Brewster boldly announced his plan: “The Old Campus will be open at the High Street Gate.” Instead of locking marchers out, Brewster welcomed them as guests. Residential colleges unlocked their doors, allowing protesters to sleep in dorms with students, in dining halls and common rooms, and even in courtyards. Brewster’s decision to open the gates was a daring demonstration of his commitment to maintaining an open society.

And his decision paid off. The rally at Yale hospitalized only a handful of people, all of whom fully recovered.

Walking through campus today, I have come to realize I am part of an institution that is trying to be more open to debate and disagreement. And I realize that as a student at Yale, I share in the responsibility to open our conversations to new voices and dissenting opinions. It is easy to hold Harvard in contempt. Harvard locked its doors, closing conversation to voices of opposition, and was weakened. Yale chose to remain open, embraced disagreement, and was strengthened.

The decision to open gates is not easy. Maintaining an open society demands that different opinions be heard. But sometimes giving certain opinions a platform can make a society more closed. If we are tolerant of every idea, even the most intolerant beliefs, our society will lose the tolerance that allowed us to entertain these ideas in the first place. Popper calls this the “paradox of tolerance,” writing that to maintain tolerance, we must occasionally claim “the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” In other words, an open society tolerates and even welcomes all values, except the values of a closed society.

***

I visit High Street Gate on the way to my afternoon class. The great mouth was propped wide open, allowing chattering students to stream onto Old Campus. I linger in the opening, jostled from side to side with the flow of the crowd, when a few faded characters imbedded in the gate catch my eye: “1945W Gateway.”

Ask any passing student, and no one will know what “1945W” means. After a week of searching, I uncover a low budget internet site, “Yale Class of 1945W Homepage,” that mentions meeting at “our gate” in a letter about an alumni reunion.

The “W” marks an irregular class, the first class entering Yale during World War II. The gate was donated by students who were interrupted in their studies by a commitment to preserve an open society, a commitment so strong it demanded the use of force to fight against fascism. The gate propped open by President Brewster almost 20 years after their graduation was sponsored by these students, who had fought for free speech, inclusivity, and equality.

Brewster himself graduated from Yale in 1941. While on campus, Brewster was vocally opposed to US involvement in World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, he immediately enlisted in the U.S. navy. Perhaps, like the class of 1945W, Brewster recognized that sometimes a commitment to an open society demands force.

In this light, the decision Brewster made 20 years later was less complicated than it seems. Unlike the fascists and their allies who violently promoted values that precluded tolerance, the May Day protesters sought to keep conversations open to radical ideas. In opening the gate, Brewster welcomed beliefs outside the mainstream, but still consistent with the goals of an open society. Perhaps this gave Brewster the courage—and even the obligation—to open that gate, even when the crowd he welcomed in appeared dangerous.

Being part of an open society, then, means we must tolerate all ideas consistent with such openness, ideas that leave room to be disproven. Being part of an open society might even mean we need to use force against radically intolerant and oppressive regimes. But what about mere ideas that uphold a belief in a closed society, ideas that seek to close the gates behind them? Must we, as students determining the nature of discourse on campus, let these ideas be heard?

Today students across the country face this more nuanced question of inclusion, whether to open conversation to intolerant ideas that, while not as destructive as intolerant regimes, might still pose a threat to tolerance itself. Does the pursuit of openness demand we allow hate-filled radical opinions on campus? Or are these views exactly the type that will create a closed society? The answers never seem clear.

I cheered as white supremacist Richard Spencer cancelled his scheduled speech at the University of Michigan after protests at his previous talk elsewhere. But perhaps if Spencer had come to campus and students had critically evaluated his message, there would have been a productive conversation. Still, if we open gates to someone spreading a racist and violent message, we give those ideas a certain legitimacy and voice.

I held my breath as Matthew Stevenson, a Jewish student on a campus in Florida, opened his doors to white nationalist Derek Black. After several months of respectful conversation over Shabbat dinners, Derek reevaluated his opinions. Matthew’s willingness to open his doors created a more resilient and open society and allowed positive change to be made. Yet I wondered, would I be willing to open my Shabbat celebration to a Nazi sympathizer?

***

I cut through High Street Gate on my way to the post office. To the right of the gate stands a large bulletin board, rooted in the concrete by thick iron legs. The bulletin board houses notices for a study evaluating those who fear germs “more than their roommate,” an advertisement for a “gun-sense” candidate, a poster with the dates of the next election, and a series of black sheets with thick white words, “We believe survivors.” The pages of open debate flutter in the wind.

Today, almost 50 years after Kingman Brewster opened this gate, nearly 70 years since the class of 1945W fought a war in the name of an open society, the openness they stood for is in jeopardy again. By the time I retrieve my mail and return past the board, I see the pages in support of sexual assault survivors have been torn down, silencing the voices of the victims. Back in the dining hall, I swallow tears after a man silences a congregation’s prayers, storming into a Synagogue yelling, “all Jews must die” only a few hours’ drive from the temple where two weeks earlier I had watched my cousins become Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. A holocaust survivor, a man whom the class of 1945W and Kingman Brewster fought to protect, narrowly escapes from the Pittsburgh attack with his life.

As the newspaper lands outside the gate of my residential college each morning, it reveals just how much reinforcement our openness constantly needs. My own responsibility is more than opening High Street Gate on one occasion (or celebrating that someone else once did) and being content that we have “achieved” openness. The achieving will never be done. We will always be called on to engage with different positions, to open the doors again to opinions we dislike, to debate and test the values we endorse, and sometimes, when the opportunity to share opinions is truly threatened, even to fight.

I walk through High Street Gate nearly every day now, stopping to read the bulletin board or to take in the view of Old Campus framed by the wide entrance. Tourists on campus never consider this gate, even as they walk through it to take the classic picture of Old Campus. Students, too, rush through, always in a hurry to get to class, or with their heads glued to their phones, trying to write a quick email along the way. I still like to pause in the entrance, my eyes invariably drawn to the 1945W. I imagine the members of that class leaving school to fight for an open society. I imagine Kingman Brewster sitting in his office, wondering whether opening the gates would help or harm that society. I remember standing outside the gates before I had the power to open them. I wonder what decisions I will make now that I have a key.