Here’s my old, wise senior advice: learn how to imitate your ideological enemies. By the time you graduate from Yale, you should be able to imitate your opponents well enough to pass unnoticed among them.
Now, let’s be clear: I’m not encouraging to you all grow up to be little James O’Keefes and infiltrate fundraisers to run stings. O’Keefe doesn’t know how to pretend to be his opponents, he can only ape the parodies he imagines them to be. And as a callow freshman, I couldn’t have done any better. I had never met a smart conservative, a reasonable Christian, or a postmodernist tagged with any (oppressive, socially-constructed) adjective at all.
One of the greatest gifts of my time at Yale has been living, writing, and arguing in a community of smart people with whom I fiercely disagree. You don’t need me to tell you that college is a time to be challenged by new ideas and reconsider old assumptions. But no one ever gives you a way to make sure you’ve given the other side a fair go. The imitation test has helped me make sure I really understood what I was rejecting and, in the end, embracing.
Unless your enemies are purposefully contrarian (and I’ve met more than a few of those here) there is something they find uniquely compelling about their ideology. To imitate them, you need to know what that is and understand why it moves people. It doesn’t matter if the benefits of an ideology are outweighed by its drawbacks; unless you can recognize the good as good, no partisan will ever trust your analysis of their creed.
And, unless you’re uncommonly brilliant and perceptive, it will do you a lot of good to confront the merits of the other side. Just because your position is better on net than your opponent’s doesn’t mean there aren’t some pretty hefty costs to the legislation you yourself endorse. Arguing with conservatives has given me a better idea of how institutions and people can be seriously hurt by the liberal policies I favor. I haven’t come around to their side, but, because I had to answer their criticism, I can make an effort to compensate for the unintended casualties of the change I seek.
Understanding what your opponents value and the weaknesses of your own position can help your tighten up your arguments, but I’ve found you can still screw up when you try to bring your new perspective to bear. Every tradition has its own vernacular, and, by the time we graduate, we’ve all picked up a new dialect of crufty jargon from our respective majors. It only takes a couple of chats with our baffled parents to realize that specialized language can shut other people out of our conversations. And the consequences can be a lot more serious in the political sphere.
Unlike parents, our ideological opponents have no reason to interpret what we say charitably. Whenever our public language is obscure or ambiguous, we are handing weapons to our enemies. Off-putting phrasing or framing gives the people you fight with an excuse not to take you seriously or to treat you as an enemy to be parried, not someone they should approach with good-faith arguments.
Learning to argue well and understand your opponents isn’t just for wonks like me. In your time at Yale and elsewhere, you’ll find yourselves in a lot of debates, and the ones that aren’t conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order may catch us unawares. If you think it matters how you vote, then you need to be able to explain yourself to your neighbor and win him over. If you think the way you raise your children is a high-stakes question, then you should be able to make a decent pitch to the people who are raising their children in a way you find abhorrent. Other people’s values have an effect on how you live your life, so you need to be able to evangelize for the values you believe are important.
The Yale Political Union has been the main arena where I’ve been fighting and learning, but I’ve tried to carry that spirit with me everywhere I go at Yale, and I will take it with me when I graduate.
Thanks to all my sparring partners, on and off the debating floor. I hope you thrashed me the times you were right. And the rest of the time? I hope I kicked your ass.
Leah Libresco is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. This is her final staff column for the News.