In my first week of Zoom college, I attended a Yale Political Union debate on the topic, “Resolved: Sign the Harper’s Letter.” In the two years that followed, countless op-eds have been published to diagnose the uniquely modern malaise of cancel culture and the way it plagues college campuses, chafes hungry young minds and silences those who hold alternative perspectives. So it came as no surprise to me that last Monday the op-ed published in the New York Times has thoroughly made its rounds through the minds of professors and students alike. The phrase “I Came to College Eager to do X. I Found Y Instead” has altogether become a meme.
There is a very particular type of student who comes to college eager for debate and political discourse. They are often well-read and well-spoken, and they want to talk and listen. But they also tend to romanticize the idea of discourse as a beatific struggle that hovers to discover something great and sensible, under the aegis of ideals like Freedom, Justice, and Equality. When they speak of debate and discourse, they think of great Roman orators and the openness of the Athenian agora. It is this myth that gives rise to ridiculous proclamations such as how today’s discourse atmosphere would seek to cancel Socrates himself. (Socrates was indeed given the ultimate cancellation – he was sentenced to death.)
The romanticized agora has never existed in the first place. Through my work in Directed Studies, I realized that Socrates was exiled and shunned because people believed that his ideas corrupted the youth, and self-censorship was all but routine in the Roman empire. Controversial opinions have always been subject to consequences when they are presented to a large public, and a place as diverse as the modern college campus is no exception.
If the same problems have always existed in public discourse, we might as well question why they are raised now with particular fury under the name of cancel culture. It is often the politics surrounding the identity and safety of particular groups that invites cries of cancel culture in the face of public outrage: student discourse around COVID-19 policies at Yale is a particular example. If one’s very identity and personhood is called to question under the guise of discourse, then one should not be asked to defend the very bases of their identity and integrity in debate and interrogation. The form of campus discourse is equally important as its content, and the things we talk about are equally important as to why we talk about them.
The opinions that people accept without question are often the most important and the most interesting, and it is necessary for college students to examine them. For those who seek debate, they will find a diverse array of welcoming spaces at Yale, although some are more white and male than others. I may find meaning in welcoming guests and students to debate on the Yale Political Union floor every Tuesday, but people can arrive at a cohesive politics of their own through other means. Debate is often not the sum of discourse: art, theater, literature and science are all potent political educators. Everything is political, but political debate need not be everywhere.
So where is the true Yale, and how do most of us think about things? The answer is that the common opinion is rootless, and that Yale is nowhere. In all the small spaces we inhabit with others, in common rooms and dining halls, in all the corners of Yale that we extend ourselves, different thoughts and ways of life are brewing, and we are becoming different people. If we nevertheless desire an agora, the places where opinions are truly developed and nurtured are the niches we choose for ourselves. Most often than not, our politics are shaped not by what is told to us in a classroom or on a debate floor, but by our experiences in society and relationships to others. What is politics for, if not to lead us back to each other?
JEAN WANG is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. She serves as the Vice President of the Yale Political Union. Her Column, “Frames of Preference”, runs every other Friday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org