Ashlyn Oakes

“They think they’re so much better than us.”

In my time here at Yale, few strains of argument have made me feel more uncomfortable, upset and troubled than those that seem to come from a place of moral superiority. Those arguments that either explicitly or implicitly seem to claim something about who I am as a person in a particularly normative sense. It’s the kind of divisive posts that say “if you support X, we’re no longer friends” or “if you’re not with us, you’re against us and against history” that have a way of getting to me. It’s these arguments — ones that intend to divide people by creating moralist hierarchies  — that get under my skin most.

Often, these types of arguments seem to come from the liberal left. Or at least, that’s what many of my friends and my own experience seem to indicate. It’s a part of the reason why so many people tend to say the phrase “P.C. culture” with a touch of vitriol.

And it’s hard to deny that the rhetoric of the far — or not so far — left has this kind of moralist tinge to it. Granted, it’s hard to deny that any kind of rhetoric has a moralist tinge. Still, that of the left, at least at Yale, seems to have its own special way of upsetting people.

Perhaps it’s so upsetting because it’s hard to believe anyone has the right to imply moral superiority. But what’s to be expected? We Yalies aren’t known for our humility, and it’s not as if our big egos in other situations have prompted such criticism. So that doesn’t seem to be quite it.

I have a lingering suspicion that, at least for me, these arguments get to me not because I think they’re wrong, but because I think that they’re right. And realizing that I’m wrong in an argument phrased in moral terms, realizing that I was morally deficient, is what stings the most.

Now, this may be the point at which one would expect me to criticize the moralizing nature of these arguments. I may say that we should use more “logical,” more “impersonal” arguments to change minds without inciting irritation. After all, if such arguments are truly “right,” we shouldn’t need to rely on moralization to change minds. The moral aspect only acts to breed resentment, so that it actually impedes progress. If only we were to rein it back in, maybe more people would understand the argument and we could have less divisive discussion.

But I won’t say that. Instead, I’d like to defend this all-too-annoying moralization as an effective means for catalyzing change. Because now, I’m beginning to see the value in, frankly, getting on people’s nerves. The value of these arguments lie precisely in them being, among other things, alienating and nagging.

The simple fact is, at any given moment, I could be thinking of a million and one different things. Despite our cognitive capabilities, our mind has far more things to focus on than it can handle, and capturing someone’s attention for an extended period of time is no easy task.

Sure, logical, nonmoral arguments delivered in a calm voice could have the same effect. But that would require the listener to meditate on those arguments, to rethink them and somehow keep it in their heads. That’s a lot of work, and to be honest, it’s a process I’d rather do for my classes than anything else.

The remarkable thing about arguments that annoy us is that they stick in our heads. They become the topic of internal conversations and conversations with others. They inspire op-eds and counterprotests, and make people feel something, one way or another.

And while we may still have a long way to go, it’s this kind of rhetoric that helps create the incredibly egalitarian culture that I believe makes Yale special. By keeping these topics on the forefront of everyone’s minds, the moralization ensures that something happens.

So I’m offering a defense for the people who just have a way of getting under my skin. Keep on doing what you do, because it’s forced me to keep something in my mind for longer than I would have otherwise. By capturing public attention, both good and bad, this kind of rhetoric — far from creating stagnation — seems to be the only mode we have of truly moving forward. Because at the end of the day, even if we complain, it gets us talking.

Leo Kim is a junior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at leo.kim@yale.edu .