People in my friend’s history seminar think she is an authoritarian communist. Well, she doesn’t know for sure, but the looks she got must have meant something. The catalyst? Pointing out long-standing exploitation inherent in free markets — maybe a little too defensively — after several others offered creatively reworded versions of “Communism is bad according to the text and real life.” Shouldering this label until next class took quite a toll, especially because my friend isn’t particularly invested in evangelizing mass collectivization, which she, like most in the seminar, doesn’t endorse. Though no classmates jumped to hasty conclusions, it seemed as if some of them internally questioned whether or not my friend had, just a moment ago, weighed her view against historical unanimity and emerged agnostic to the deaths many states have caused. In fact, she isn’t a Marx apologist if you get to know her. Our political arguments usually wind up as aggressive agreement.
Imagine the same seminar with less misunderstanding; right before my friend launches into playing devil’s advocate, she announces that no, she isn’t ignoring the system’s well-documented pitfalls, and of course, she wouldn’t prefer the system that the text advocates over our current one. With the correct perfunctory disclaimers, no one feels the need to relay the otherwise “problematic” statements a classmate made in seminar. And here lies the tragedy.
We believe things should be a certain way. The way we treat others, the activism we undertake and even what we have for breakfast reflect that worldview. To convey that, we preface what we say to our peers. It’s not hard; if we first reconcile our worldview with the majority’s, the world of safe opinions opens to us. We do it to avoid our quote appearing on a provocative “Overheard at Yale” post or starring in someone else’s “you won’t believe what someone in section said today” story to their suitemate.
Cut through Cross Campus or walk up Prospect Street at 10:30 a.m. on a weekday, and the lion’s share of the crowd are strangers. But if Yale is truly a community of interesting people at the same place in life, we shouldn’t think of each other as such. Opinions at Yale run the gamut — left, right, 29 degrees diagonal, abolish the student income contribution, Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges have the best dining hall — but we all have one thing in common: membership in the Yale community. We are akin by default.
Does one’s membership in the Yale community indicate special open-mindedness or prejudice? I believe it’s the former. We should certainly continue to be careful that what we express does not cause harm out of malice or negligence. But in all else, share without expecting your sentiments in this moment to determine the impression that others have of you in perpetuity. Disagreement in an agreeable community takes after the familiarity of friendship. We can make jokes at our friends’ expense without losing their friendship, and we don’t need to append a “just kidding” for them to know we don’t mean it.
My second plea corresponds: Give each other the benefit of the doubt. If we don’t want onlookers to generalize statements we don’t qualify, then we shouldn’t do the same to others. A culture of accepting diverse ideas, which is critical to any university, needs to eliminate the false choice of either accommodating one’s view to the majority’s or risking the majority branding our process of thinking as unequivocally unacceptable just because one of our ideas runs against the grain. On deep controversies, I don’t know anyone whose scope of opinion only extends to the one sentence in question that they said. On simpler questions of someone’s human decency, there’s more to learn from spending time with them than judging them when they misspeak. We know individually that we don’t fit the stereotype of the easily offended special snowflake. It’s not a great leap to admit that others don’t fit that description either.
Zhengdong Wang is a first year in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .