Have you noticed that conservatives have been complaining?
Last June, Tal Fortgang, a junior at Princeton who pushed back against the term “white privilege,” complained in TIME that “left-wing academics and their students completely ignore (at best) and marginalize (at worst) students and the rare colleague who disagree with them politically.” Mr. Fortgang went on to list 38 — thirty-eight! — ways that liberal college students enjoy “left-wing privilege” on campus.
Last July, in The Right Way, a conservative magazine at Georgetown University, Amber Athey wrote that “liberal students … have created a toxic and hostile environment for conservatives,” and are “hell bent on silencing conservative viewpoints.” Athey reported that she had been called a “racist,” a “misogynist” and a “rape apologist,” and had been similarly slandered in a Facebook post.
And last spring, Scott Greenberg ’15, in this newspaper, noticed that posts on Yale PostSecret that “make controversial (read: not leftist) political assertions … are usually met with an outpouring of indignation, ad-hominem attacks and sarcasm.”
In my experience, these complaints are entirely accurate. Indeed, I was the first microaggressor at Yale to be publicly “named and shamed” on the Facebook group, “Overheard Microaggressions at Yale.” Yet conservative students’ complaints present an interesting paradox. There is no doubt that progressives endlessly gripe and moan about their alleged victimhood and hurt feelings, identifying myriad microaggressions and tagging dissenters as “haters.” But in response, conservatives are doing an awful lot of griping and moaning themselves about how poorly they are treated and how uncharitably their arguments are received.
All I can tell these so-called “conservatives” is this: Suck it up! And rise above! Especially at such elite universities, where the banner of victimhood is already bandied about by so many, why add yourself to its ranks?
What these conservatives don’t understand is that victimhood should be rejected not just because it’s a nuisance, nor because college students’ grievances are usually exaggerated, nor even because lobbing epithets like “racist” and “sexist” at well-meaning people simply isn’t very nice; no, the victim mentality should be rejected because it makes students stupid and lazy.
Indeed, the problem with dismissive insults is not really that they are “hurtful” or that they shut down debate, though they are and they do; it is just that they are not very enlightening. Calling people names is what children do. It’s easy. What’s hard — and takes a lot of work — is to charitably acknowledge an argument and then patiently show why it’s wrong.
The other trouble with victimhood is that it inevitably encourages students to see themselves as besieged. That leads to a bunker mentality in which people close themselves off to others’ points of view and eschew substantive debate with people whose intellectual assumptions diverge from their own. This is as true of liberals as it is of conservatives — and it makes everyone dumber. As the archetypal liberal John Stuart Mill once said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
Finally, conservatives should recognize that they actually do enjoy a small privilege. It’s been said that the term “conservative” lacks coherence, and that there’s no such thing as a political “right.” Although the left, at least among the progressive “knowledge class” that dominates places like Yale, has embraced a standard orthodoxy on a broad range of issues, the right remains deeply factious: Traditionalists, libertarians, evangelical Christians, classical liberals and the rare Tory atheist all line up against the left. But it’s nearly impossible for such disparate factions to impose orthodoxy on one another, so there’s a lot more dissent on the right at Yale. That’s freeing, and ought to be intellectually invigorating.
Since conservatives aren’t of one mind, they need not prostrate themselves before the lazy platitudes of “structural racism,” “white supremacy,” “the patriarchy” or “post-colonialism.” And since they’re always up against the onslaught of left-leaning campus orthodoxy, conservatives can’t fall back on tired old shibboleths about “tradition” or “liberty” or “free markets.” They really have to think about what they believe, and learn how to defend their ideas. Arguing for renegade views is challenging, but it hones the mind.
Being called a bigot is intimidating, however, especially since that indiscriminate designation has been elevated to the most egregious modern sin, designed to discredit a person’s concerns and values and to silence even the discussion of inconvenient facts. Left-leaning students have much to answer for here, undoubtedly. Yet even so, robust, wide-open debate is not for the faint of heart. What Yale’s intellectual scene needs most are participants with thicker skins. Rightists should lead in this regard, by refusing to take offense, and by not allowing name-calling to get to them.
Make your case, class of 2019. Ignore the rabble! That is the way of true liberals, and of free thinkers.
Isaac Cohen is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org