The exchange was simple. Shortly before seminar began, one student noticed another’s laptop stickers, which decried the death penalty. She asked the girl why she held that position, and the girl with the stickers answered succinctly, without acrimony or defensiveness: The death penalty is inhumane, costly, disproportionately applied to minorities, sometimes applied to the innocent. It was a fairly compelling and eloquent justification, and the first student nodded politely, apparently satisfied. The professor walked in, seminar began, and nothing more was said on the matter.
I was on lunch break during a summer working in downtown New Haven. On the Green, a pro-life rally was taking place. Most of the participants were older, dressed somewhat conservatively and predominantly white. A smaller group of younger people on the other side of the issue (call them what you will based on your politics) was protesting their rally. I walked over to take a closer look just as these factions met head-to-head. Their clash was rife with name-calling, logical fallacies, citation of some of the most patently false statistics I’ve ever heard and a general refusal to meaningfully engage with their opponents’ arguments.
Of course, I realize these anecdotes are by no means perfectly representative. But I don’t think it is a wholly controversial claim to suggest that good-faith, reasonable discussion is more common within our walls than it is without. Just look at established political battles among “grown-ups” today. Even the YPU would put them to shame, partisan as it is. What differentiates these worlds?
This question is intensely important to me because I’m about to leave our sheltered realm, and the future looks bleak. The default behavior at the average workplace and in social circles associated with your career seems to be (according to recent alumni and common undergraduate perception) to shy away from politics altogether. It would be unprofessional. This is probably less true for those working in the nonprofit realm and obviously untrue for those working in politics, but there are other problems there, such as the “echo chamber” nature of those institutions. I imagine there is relatively little debate about the merits of the death penalty at the ACLU, for instance. Aside from workplaces, there are mainstream political communities, but those exhibit the same tendencies as the New Haven rally.
On the other hand, being part of Yale carries several assumptions. There are implicit expectations, rules of political engagement and discourse. We expect that when dialogue occurs, it will be reasonable, and that strangers will deliberate in a civil fashion. We believe that people should respond to arguments, assuming neither malice nor stupidity, shunning straw men and the practice of ignoring another’s best points. We are willing to entertain interesting hypotheticals and convoluted thought experiments. Changing one’s opinion (“flip-flopping” in the national parlance) does not warrant vilification but acceptance, such that an individual can traverse the spectrum between Marx and Nozick, Mill and Kant, Keynes and Hayek within a few months without anyone batting an eye.
Of course, these expectations are not always met. Bad argumentation, logical fallacies and poor use of statistics are not in short supply here, either.
But I suspect most students would agree that the norms exist and are strong. With the collective weight of a million small acts and comments that take place everyday, we inculcate an overriding principle of good-faith participation. Few set out with the conscious intent to manipulate the discourse, or with the assumption that their position is infallible. And the reality is that we live on a campus that, broadly speaking, propagates this philosophy.
Granted, there is also a less idealistic explanation for why these norms exist. Perhaps people are at a formative stage of their lives, when their opinions inherently have less conviction behind them. Having never considered many of the big questions, students feel they have no grounds to criticize others’ views when they enter college. Or maybe there’s an apathy or ignorance towards the hard realities of politics because students don’t pay taxes, deal with insurance or suffer from the countless other ways government intransigence and inefficiency can make American life miserable and discourse acrimonious.
But even if these things are true, I think the expectations we create for ourselves matter, too. The trick is figuring out how to carry those norms with us to broader society, where these principles seem weak or nonexistent. Their gifts are too great for us to reserve for the courtyards and dining halls of Yale. If you have any ideas, we should talk. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .