The Yale Political Union is a weird bunch. This past weekend, a “whip sheet” — a document sent to advertise an upcoming debate — for the Party of the Right was posted on the Facebook group Overheard at Yale. The sheet advertised the week’s topic — “Resolved: Reform the Savages” — complete with a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” and a depiction of a Native American with a headdress. As one might imagine, that didn’t go over so well. Furious students penned expletive-laden comments showing their disdain for the whip sheet. What’s striking about the weekend’s events is the unanimity of it all. Every single person I’ve seen, including members of the party itself, agree that the whip sheet was, to put it lightly, a mistake.
When controversy erupts on campus, opposing factions often respond to one another by hurling around ideological slurs. But I’m not sure that Yalies understand when and where this type of stigma is worth using.
Let’s recap what happened with the POR. Yalies used stigma — shaming without all that much accompanying reasoning — to remind the Party of the Right that racial pejoratives are reprehensible. It worked. The party promptly apologized for its behavior. But is stigma always useful? Students used stigma in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting too. If your social media feed was anything like mine in the past two days, then you probably saw a ton of insults directed toward the NRA and its supporters. Yet somehow, I doubt that moralizing twenty-somethings virtue-signaling to one another will convince die-hard gun owners to drop arms.
People often conflate what is justifiable with what is effective. Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs Magazine (“Thinking Strategically about Free Speech and Violence,” Aug. 20, 2017) illustrates this problem by analyzing defenses of violence against Neo-Nazis. Many of these arguments boil down to four key observations: Nazis want genocide. Genocide is clearly terrible. Nazi ideology is inherently violent. And therefore, violence is justified in preventing the spread of Nazis. As he notes, this all sounds remarkably persuasive, but proponents fail to consider one important question: Is violence actually an “effective long-term tool for undermining white supremacists?” Or, put differently, maybe we can justify the use of violence, but at what cost? How worried should we be that violence will simply foster resentment and allow Nazism to spread even further? There aren’t good answers to these questions, but we need to consider them. Similarly, we need to be far more mindful of the costs of using stigma on college campuses.
So when does stigma work? Why did it work on the Party of the Right? Stigma is only useful when everyone has the same set of values. It serves as a useful tool for reinforcing those values. In essence, we can stigmatize when we’re addressing problems that our communities have deemed solved. There are some arguments that we think are universally reprehensible. This is to say that giving credibility to them can cause irreparable damage. For example, it is dangerous to entertain the notion that racism is okay because doing so can lead to irreversible harms, such as violence against minorities. But there aren’t, and neither should there be, many of these solved problems. There should be a good reason for dismissing an argument without engaging with it.
But, even if stigma can prevent harm in the short term, I’m still unconvinced that it’s a successful way to keep ideas alive long term. Maxwell Gottschall observes in The Atlantic, stigma “robs the converted of the tools to persuade others going forward.” I’m inclined to agree. Recently, a friend of mine relayed the story of a debate team in his local circuit that ran a pro-racism case. Apparently, they kept winning because, while people knew that racism was wrong, they lacked an effective way to articulate why. The same is true of politics. I’ve heard quite a few horror stories about my friends trying to convince their families to agree with their political beliefs at Thanksgiving dinner. Because we casually dismiss conservative viewpoints on campus, many liberal students just don’t know how to argue persuasively. It’s also why, in the long run, it’s best to air even the most morally repugnant of arguments: We need to make sure we remember how to respond to them.
Even in the fairly clear cut case of the POR whip sheet, I’m sure that there’s at least one person out there who doesn’t understand what all the fuss was about. These are the people that it’s especially important to convince. Let’s figure out how.
Shreyas Tirumala is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org