“We should not even be having this debate.” The saddest moment of my sophomore year was hearing a freshman speak those words during a forum about Calhoun College. This controversial matter, it seemed to him, was too clear to merit any actual controverting.
Imagine a similar comment in a normative ethics or Shakespeare seminar. All would recognize it as unhelpful, and further, as somehow alien to the premise of the seminar: that after years of inquiry into morality or the Bard, many things are unclear. We always lack information, and the number of minds addressing a question says nothing about the quality of the answers they produce. A student, one of us, may have something to contribute. To dub one answer final, and another undeserving of proposal, is therefore to reject the reason the seminar is worth taking in the first instance.
This finality and this certainty characterized many of the students assembled in protest (or mosh pit) last year advocating that Calhoun College change its name. Support for the status quo, for many, was not just mistaken, but a shill for racism, oppression, even “violence.” Racism, oppression and violence are not theoretical but real threats, right now. And one doesn’t calmly dispute a threat.
Many opponents of changing the name felt intimidated. There was a social cost to defending a respectable position. Now, perhaps the cost was illusory. Many people might have distinguished true friends from false ones by proposing that the name ought to be kept, and then watching who bolted back to the crowd to shout and who stepped forward to converse.
Those who remained quiet deserve some criticism, I think. What is the point of thinking something is true about a matter of public concern without telling the public? Don’t friends, of which Yale purports to be a society, pursue the good of each other for the sake of each other? Don’t false thoughts obstruct the pursuit of the best goods?
But the larger point, the one by which Yale College stands or falls, is not the decision to remain quiet, but the desire for others to keep silent.
One way to shut someone up is to impute hostile intentions to him, which is to assassinate his character. Why, other than poor morals, would one support something “racist” or “oppressive?” Stupidity and ignorance are the two alternatives. But in any case, if the intention or motive is besmirched, the conclusion will not receive a just hearing.
There is a different, more insidious manifestation of this authoritarian urge: the use of emotion. I do not have space for a full case against emotion in the public square. So let me just say this: either we can control our emotions or we cannot. If we cannot control our emotions, then they are either arbitrary reactions (and therefore, useless), or perhaps they provide data useful to a discussion of right and wrong. But we have to have some theory about how to interpret emotional data before we propose them as a justification for this proposal and against that one. At any rate, people have opposite emotions about the same thing. “I feel contempt for John,” says Jane. “I don’t,” says Jack. And they are at an impasse, unless one can prove that his contempt is justified, and that the other’s is not. This proof will be acceptable because it is reasonable, not because it comes from someone with tears and a loud voice.
Now, perhaps we can control our emotions. But then it seems to me that the best way to control them is to direct “pro” attitudes toward good and right things, and “con” attitudes toward bad and wrong things. And the good and right and bad and wrong are what is up for debate. Those who use emotion as a decisive argument — “I feel this, so you should do that” — therefore, preclude rational debate. Their subjective experiences become warrants for a demand that everyone must follow. This treats those who do not share their emotions as inferior intellects. If emotion really is their argument, they give a tyrant’s answer to an inquisitive subject: “Because I feel like it.”
Emotions motivate us; they deserve analysis, but they are not themselves analysis. Analysis in common, the practice of dispute, is a valuable activity. It constitutes the life of the mind. Are we at Yale to live some other sort of life?
We will not have a college, nor will we deserve one, if the sum desire to suppress the unpopular speech of others overpowers the sum desire of dissenters to speak. Game on.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Calhoun College. His column usually runs on Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com .