We love to be creatures of logic. Somewhere in middle school, and increasingly more as we climbed through high school and into college, we started to embrace logical discussion as the best way to solve conflicts. Debate, Model UN and Mock Trial come to mind when I think about how eager we are to be logical, to debate our ideas and exercise our minds. And that’s how it’s done in the adult world too; politicians debate policy, lawyers argue back and forth in court and news channels invite experts to discuss contemporary issues. Especially in the United States, where we tout our freedom of speech so loudly, we’ve made it a point of pride to always make space for listening to ideas, no matter how different they might be from our own. We invite the opportunity to pick apart each other’s line of thinking in a reciprocal, respectful exchange. We call it respectful, logical conversation and we think ourselves quite civilized for it. Sometimes, though, the debate can be the problem itself. Some arguments aren’t worth engaging with, and quite frankly are dangerous for even existing.
I have held this belief for about a year now, and I was reminded of it quite recently by an unexpected source. During the past couple weekends, I conducted several admission interviews with high school students applying for the summer program I attended when I was their age. One interviewee made a statement about how prejudiced people could be re-educated through logical debates that could convince them that their views were wrong, and I could tell that they genuinely had faith in the power of rational thinking.
This faith is shared, it seems, by both ends of the ideological spectrum. One of the angriest moments I’ve had at Yale was last year’s Bulldog Days, when I saw a table on cross campus that was manned by members of a pro-life club. Grouped around the table, which was spread with sonograms and fetal diagrams, the students were inviting passersby to engage in logical debates about fetal personhood and abortion ethics. They were polite. They held their voices low and spoke slowly and calmly. They had relaxed, open smiles.
“Would you like to discuss this? Let’s talk about it respectfully,” they insisted. “We can debate about this.” Their smug civility was infuriating; their invitations for debate, inflammatory. I could barely seethe out my opinion about the misogyny of holding such a debate at all; simpering, the male students gestured to the only female student with them. Their wide, innocent eyes asked the unspoken question: how could they possibly be misogynist when one of their club members was a woman?
I think that interaction, which took place a bare week before the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked in May, took a few years off my life — and really, it’s my fault for biting the bait. I regret talking with them. I should not have entered such a space and entertained such discourse; to bring the legality of abortion into question, then frame the debate around whether and when a fetus became a person was a red herring, a false path meant to distract someone from the true issue and its massive repercussions for bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. The discussion never should have been entertained, because simply opening space for this “logical, respectful” debate itself is a threat to human rights that should never be up for debate.
Who approved such a table to be displayed during Bulldog Days? Multiple students have told me that if they saw it as a prefrosh, they would have reconsidered committing. Yale should be more cognizant about the environment it fosters for women. We don’t need perfunctory celebrations of the anniversary of Yale’s women that accompany endorsements of misogynist dialogue. And as to the last question, I thought it was common sense but I guess I have to explicitly explain that women can indeed be misogynists, and indeed, historically have been some of the most major anti-feminists; simply look at how many women fought so viciously against the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s.
This article is not specifically about abortion rights; that story is simply my experience that led me to realize the futility of logical debate. I’m talking about the conversation at Thanksgiving dinner when the uncle begins to rant about immigrants; I’m talking about the conversation in the common room when the friend shares harmful opinions and invites discussion; I’m talking about every uncomfortable conversation we have with prejudiced, ignorant people whom we believe we can convince with logic. I’m telling you, it’s not worth it. And at some point that you have to determine for yourself, you have to disengage. The burden is not on us to talk our mouths dry and educate others, and frankly it is past the point of being an intellectual challenge. It’s an insult to our personhood, experience and rights to have to hold some of these “debates.”
We can’t all be saviors. Some people are only interested in pulling us below the surface of the water. Let go of the line of thinking. Abort the conversation.
BIANCA NAM is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column “Dear Woman” traverses contemporary feminist, progressive issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.