Yalies are terrible at disagreeing with one another. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, many of us returned home to spend Thanksgiving with family — some of whom were the mythical Trump supporters that election results enlightened us about. Worryingly, many students found that an acceptable response to such supporters was to cut them out of their lives. Even if proclamations about never allowing Trump supporters at family reunions were made in jest, they highlight a problem with political discourse around campus: We overuse stigma in lieu of actual argumentation.
Campus debate has effectively turned into a tribalistic competition for likes on Facebook. The typical response to an unpopular opinion piece in the News is a stream of links to the piece — often with commentary to the effect of “Ugh, this is so wrong, I can’t even.” I’ve lost count at how many writers have been labeled racists, bigots, sexists and the like. And it’s not just online; last year, we heard reports of students spitting on other students at a Buckley Program event. The political right isn’t much better — but there simply aren’t enough of them at Yale for their behavior to make the headlines. Stigmatization of either side is pernicious not only because it does nothing to persuade, but also because it just isn’t nice. For a campus that purports to be tolerant, it appears we’ve forgotten how to respectfully disagree with one another.
Much of the animus that political opinions engender seems to come from a lack of intellectual charity. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic offers a good case study of this phenomenon. Bernie Sanders spoke in Boston just before Thanksgiving. While there, he answered a question from a woman who wanted tips for becoming the second Latina senator.
He responded, “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me,’ that is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on big money interests …”
Commentator Nancy LeTourneau pounced on the comment, suggesting that Sanders was “defending white male supremacy” because he assumed Latinas running for office have no valid agendas other than being Latina. As Friedersdorf points out, however, this interpretation is wildly uncharitable. Sanders certainly believed that the questioner had other ideas; he was suggesting that she needed to run on a platform that encompassed both her identity and her ideas. Would Bernie Sanders of all people defend white supremacy?
A similar scenario plays out during discussions about the renaming of Calhoun College. Students defending Calhoun are often accused of tacitly endorsing white supremacy or even explicitly denying the lived experiences of fellow students. Such responses assume a fundamental lack of decency and empathy. Would any student honestly suggest that her classmates’ feelings don’t matter? What happened to giving people the benefit of the doubt? If you’re reading an opinion piece to find the “gotcha” line that allows you to label the author as insert-pejorative-here, you’re probably missing the point. And if liberal or conservative is a slur to you, you’re doing it wrong.
When we disagree with someone about a nonempirical question, it is because we make different value judgments. Instead of using “isms” to call out and stigmatize ideas we disagree with, it’s worth understanding them first. Life is not a debate round: We seek truth (hopefully) — not Facebook likes. More concretely, when we hear claims we disagree with, our first reaction ought to be to ask a series of “Why?” questions. Then, and only then, should we chime in with our own reasoning.
Identity politics complicate this somewhat. Many argue that the oppressed ought to not have the burden of continually explaining their grievances and trying to understand the reasoning of their oppressors; oppressors have the moral obligation to listen and mend their behavior. I actually agree with this theoretical critique, but such a mentality isn’t practical for changing minds.
There are, of course, some universally reprehensible arguments that we can stigmatize. There’s no need to have a serious intellectual debate with neo-Nazis; individuals who believe that women ought to be relegated to the kitchen don’t deserve a platform either. But writing off arguments should be rare and reserved for truly egregious claims. Can arguments be unintentionally sexist, racist or homophobic? Yes. Are those situations worth pointing out? Absolutely. But we can do so with far more compassion and far less inflammatory language than we do today. Let’s advocate — not admonish.
Shreyas Tirumala is a junior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .