Yale’s political climate is political in all the wrong ways. The space for students to disagree politically and be friends at the end of the day seems to be shrinking daily. Though I have known this dispiriting attitude since high school, I would have hoped a place like Yale, with its reverence for the history of ideas, would not hasten their downfall.
Yale students largely fall into three groups: dogmatic enforcers, complacent moralizers or silent conformists.
While the first two groups are distinctly part of Yale’s self-righteous left, the silent majority of campus conformists is ideologically everywhere, from milquetoast liberals to closeted conservatives. Sadly, fear of cancel culture, foreclosing career opportunities and appearing immoral in the eyes of peers has heightened the risk of raising controversy and disagreeing. Of course, one needs to pick one’s battles. But one should not always cow or be silent. I know these people. They aren’t shy; they are afraid.
This vast swathe of the student body represents a broader culture of political aversion at Yale, in contrast to a politics of welcome disagreement. When we do discuss politics, more often than not it is to find safety and belonging in the approbation of our peers for holding the right opinions or to gain the satisfaction of trouncing our opponent and feeling superior. Rarely is the desire to learn and grow from disagreement.
Yalies take for granted a number of values we should justifiably hold, but our fear of disagreement prevents us from really knowing why we believe in them. In “On Liberty,” Mill warns us that even if the prevailing opinion we hold in society is true, without openness to disagreement, it will “be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.” Having atrophied, then, the meaning of the doctrine will be lost and “deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct.”
The moralistic prejudice that pervades Yale is a direct result of our fear of disagreement. This is to the detriment of Yale’s left. When reasons for upholding a belief system do not have to be rearticulated, those doctrines shrivel into strings of words that bear less and less resemblance to the reality they were supposed to address. Try asking a Yalie why slavery is wrong, why democracy is right and why Donald Trump was a bad president, and you’ll get sophist soundbites that just assert the claim without a search for understanding. All of these claims are true, but when we do not consider why, history repeats itself.
The disconnect between reason and intuition makes actors who act only under social duress. This is exactly how Yale produces a left that is liberal in name only. It is how we end up saying the “right things” for four years in college, then moving on to cushy jobs at Bain, Goldman Sachs and Facebook without considering whether we deserve all that money and power. It is how we end up with an elite divorced from and unresponsive to the political reality of normal Americans. This is how we breed mass resentment in the hinterlands and elect Donald Trump as president.
Moralizing campus discourse forecloses reconciling our differences of opinion. A simple example is shaming those whose COVID-era behaviors we disagree with. Like much of politics, the pandemic is complex, and the choices we make have to be practical. A party might actually make someone feel human again in this isolating time. What gives us the moral high ground to condemn the partygoer and their sympathizers into silence? Science, of course! As if science somehow freed humanity from having to make political choices. As if it gave us the moral position of God to judge the lives of others we know nothing about.
We need politics to work out our differences of opinion in mutually agreeable ways. Yale students are too smart to think otherwise. Yet we employ the weapons of war — threat of cancellation, virtue signaling and silent conformity — against one other instead of searching for truth in our differences. In our certainty of truth, we have chosen war, not politics.
Politics at its purest is about resolving our differences to live together. Avoiding our differences will not resolve them. It only fragments the body politic into irreconcilable frames of reference, bubbles and mini-polities at war with one another. But it also deprives us of community, the joy of authentic expression and shared commitment to friendly disagreement.
If we wish to make progress or flourish as a society, we need a politics open to disagreement. My next pieces will delve into the values we need to inculcate to reach this state of discourse: epistemic humility, love for the other and strength of self. But before we go there, we must choose: politics or war.
ETHAN DODD is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at email@example.com.