It has been several weeks since Yale exploded into protests and demonstrations due to racial tension on campus. President Salovey has assuaged the demands of Next Yale by instituting several changes on campus, including sensitivity training for administrators, increased funding for the cultural houses and new faculty diversity initiatives. While these top-down changes may be the most salient, I can’t help but feel that the conversations and marches and teach-ins were equally as important for having pushed people to engage with difficult issues. On the individual level, we have wrought changes in our opinions and empathy through ground-up conversations.
I haven’t emerged from these weeks with clarity on all issues. I’m still confused about many things, such as how free speech and racism were intertwined with each other in the debate. In hindsight, I’m inclined to agree with Dean Holloway, who said to the New Yorker, “The students … aren’t questioning the rights of free speech. You’re hearing this incredible pain and frustration related to the issue of being constantly marginalized.” But most of my friends from back home see the recent events at Yale entirely in terms of threats to free speech. And so the two sides end up talking past each other, with some thinking apples and others thinking oranges. We perceive the problems on different wavelengths, and lacking a common language, we descend into tense sparring and mutual misunderstanding.
I’m not moralizing about the valiant efforts of fellow students trying to achieve a better Yale. Rather than advocating for one side or another, I want to examine our modes of interaction. While it is important to vocalize the opinions we believe in, there is an equally important responsibility to put aside our opinions and listen. Particularly in a public arena or on a debating stage, we need to express our unvarnished opinions for the benefit of our listeners. But during one-on-one conversations, when we are the only audience, the dynamics are different. In this scenario, we should aim to bend our minds into the framework of the other person. We should be aiming for fluidity of thought.
This is extremely difficult, and yet so important. The best (and perhaps only) way for us to enlighten others is to actively see through their lenses, to bridge the wavelength gap. Deep within our minds, we each have unique paradigms of the way the world exists and should exist. We’ve built into our worldviews a constellation of arguments that span our values, experiences and in this case, what we think about free speech and race. But only the tip of our ideological icebergs emerges in a given interaction. When we spar, all these unspoken frameworks remain in shadow to our opponents only to pulsate urgently behind our individual eyes. And so we become frustrated while we endeavor to change another’s perspective. We want to overhaul their opinion during a single conversation, but these icebergs of thought takes months and years to move.
Our best course of action is to pour ourselves into our partner’s minds. And we should do this even when we see our opponents as insensitive, dogmatic and conservative (or liberal, take your pick). By seeing through the eyes of our “enemy,” we’ll paradoxically be more likely to have our own positions prevail. Our opponents will feel that we are truly engaging with them — and we are. We won’t come away morally damaged by momentarily seeing the world like those with whom we vehemently disagree. Instead, we’ll imperceptibly have modified our opponents’ understanding. And indeed, we’ll have gained nuance for our own thoughts in the process.
I’m not arguing for moral relativism here. I think that the events that transpired over the past few weeks, including President Salovey’s response, attest to the best traditions of Yale — a place of open ideas, conversation and slowly bending moral arcs. I just want to fight back against our human tendency to view the issues as objectively about one thing or another. We think to ourselves, “We’ve heard the other side a million times.” We are exhausted by their insensitivity to our cause, and don’t see them as caring or enlightened people.
But this is not constructive. If I take away one lesson from the past few weeks, it’s that the best way to be a warrior for our own causes is to listen and momentarily adopt the war-song of our opponents. This doesn’t mean we are endorsing the positions we argue with. Instead, we are finally speaking the same language.
Ezriel Gelbfish is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .