When I came to Yale for the first time this fall, I was told it would be a place where I could explore opinions contrary to my own, where rational discourse was cherished above all else and where individuals who fundamentally differed in their values, views and backgrounds would come together to investigate the beliefs of others in search of a more complete education. I looked forward to last night’s Yale Political Union debate with Senator Rick Santorum for these exact reasons. And although the debate largely met my initial expectations of what discourse at a university should look like, the decision of a group of undergraduates to deliberately walk out before Santorum’s speech left me appalled and bewildered.
The Y Syndicate, a student protest group, asked audience members to “walk out and refuse to engage in this spectacle” in a flier the group distributed before the debate. According to the flier, Santorum’s sole purpose was to “spew ignorance and hate,” and inviting him to speak was an “attempt to legitimize ignorance and bigotry.” When the senator stood up to speak, this group stood up and filed out of the hall.
This group’s actions were misguided and hostile to the public discourse it claims to support. I agree that every person has the right not to listen to Santorum if he does not want to. But portraying Santorum as somebody with views so wretched and unforgivable that they are beneath debate is the ultimate intellectual cop-out. It allows dissenters to hide behind a wall and claim that, although the opposition may make valid arguments, we ought not recognize them. Santorum did not deserve this treatment. His speech used facts and logic, not appeals to prejudice. He grounded his conclusions on a structure of premises, statistics and experiences which — though anyone can freely disagree with them — can hardly be labeled “ignorant.” Only the unabashedly arrogant could claim that any view which doesn’t coincide with their own must be wrong.
Furthermore, Santorum’s views are clearly not just those of an irrelevant minority. As a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Santorum received over 3 million votes and won 11 primaries and caucuses. Do those who walked out truly feel so self-confident that they can dismiss an entire realm of thinking without offering any reasons why? Santorum’s willingness to use statistics and reason — regardless of whether he reached conclusions I agree with — ought immediately to qualify him as deserving a debate.
Treating political opponents as unworthy of acknowledgement is pure cowardice. As opposed to making a sincere attempt to understand or refute Santorum, the orchestrators of the walk-out merely pasted a few of Santorum’s most controversial stances on a six-by-nine inch pamphlet and, assuming the audience would rather laugh at Santorum’s quotes than think critically about them, dismissed his views entirely.
Then, in an irony almost too perfect to be real, the letter concludes: “Interested in real political thought, discourse, and action on campus? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.” Thanks, but no thanks.
Yale’s true leaders of political dialogue opted to remain in Woolsey Hall last night, challenging the senator with insightful questions and enthralling rebuttals. One questioner critical of Santorum asked about his views on minimum wage. Others delivered speeches including point-by-point refutations of Santorum’s views.
Everyone who stayed in their seats that night — Santorum included — understood that the only way society can advance is through the reconciliation of opposing ideas in an open dialogue. If everyone followed the Y Syndicate’s advice, Yale would not be half as intellectually stimulating as it is today.
“I appreciate all the responses I’m getting,” Santorum said while audience members both hissed and cheered. “Even the snake noises. The fact that you react to my facts — it’s hope.”
Say what you will about his other positions, but Santorum hit the nail on the head. Nobody should be unfairly castigated or ignored because he holds different opinions. The hope for genuine discussions about political issues that Santorum spoke of is the same one I had when I decided to attend Yale. It’s a shame that not everybody believes in it.
Zachary Plyam is a freshman in Calhoun College. Contact him at email@example.com.