The “Yale Bubble” is a strange place. Inside this odd world, it’s not out of the question to hear young adults casually discussing Plato and Socrates; it’s a place where many students acquire a summer job that pays more than the annual salaries of most Americans.
In short, Yalies dream big, so it’s probably unsurprising that many of us can be pretty wedded to our ideas. Consequently, whether we’re in class or another public setting, our arguments lack a sense of nuance when we’re discussing these ideas.
Think about your sections and seminars, for example. In an ideal world, sections would be a place to unpack the meaning of course material. But in reality, as many have pointed out previously in the News, most section discussions of philosophy, history or economics are horribly one-dimensional. After hearing the cross talk between section assholes and section suck-ups, how often does anyone come away with an appreciation for the subtleties of a subject? How often do people have their minds changed? I’d posit that it doesn’t happen too often.
Part of that is probably attributable to the short time frame of these discussions; 50 minutes isn’t enough time to really investigate complex sociocultural issues. We’re also graded on what we say, so there’s a tendency to stick to what we know — and disavow anything remotely controversial. But undoubtedly, it’s also partially a function of our personalities. Yalies are just not very good at entertaining ideas that we dislike.
Perhaps expecting so much open-mindedness is too lofty a goal for course sections. But what about our discussions outside of class? What are conversations like when we leave the lecture halls and seminar rooms behind? The answer, I think, is that they’re largely the same. The best evidence of this comes from how we react to op-eds written in the News. Deviating from campus orthodoxy in a column will almost always yield swarms of nasty emails or comments. The converse is also true, of course; supporting the prevailing narrative for a given campus issue all but guarantees you showers of praise.
In a sense, that’s fine. If you’re willing to express something unpopular, you ought to be ready to handle some blowback. This isn’t a column that’s going to decry some lack of ideological diversity on campus; that’s simply not true. What does concern me, however, is that when our campus’s ideological diversity manifests itself, Yalies often dismiss rather than discuss other ideas they disagree with. Instead, unpopular op-eds are shared on Facebook to publicly shame the author. Many posters proudly proclaim that an author is just unilaterally wrong — that they just can’t even finish reading such abhorrent words. I find myself rejecting certain arguments on face too.
We’re better than that. Most students are generally open-minded; private discussions about race, politics and philosophy can be complex and fulfilling, but for whatever reason, our public discourse isn’t quite so nuanced. The same students who are thoughtful, intelligent and analytical in private become fiery, antagonistic and uncompromising while debating at the Yale Political Union or in other public spheres. And as a result, campus discourse basically amounts to creating and destroying caricatures of ideas we don’t agree with and preaching to our own ideological team.
I’m sure that this lack of nuance isn’t due to malice. Many Yalies participate in fiercely competitive activities that require choosing sides and end up working in competitive industries that similarly demand an ideological loyalty. Our public discourse is likely shaped partially by this mentality that we share. It certainly doesn’t help that many of us are products of the American high school system, one that teaches students about the importance of forming “strong” theses in essays and making clear arguments — even if those arguments lack any acknowledgement of the other side. In essence, we reward rhetoric over reason.
Certainly for me, shutting off the urge to pick a side in an argument and stick to it is difficult, and I’m sure it’s the same for many others as well. But having the intellectual humility to stop and engage with unsavory arguments is incredibly important. One of the greatest compliments we can pay to one another is to say, “You changed my mind.”
Shreyas Tirumala is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .