The Yale Political Union promotes itself as the best of Yale — a forum for students from across the spectrums of ideology, identity and experience to come together and address contentious issues in good faith. Yet, far too often, it fails to deliver on its lofty promises.
I love the Union and have given it my all over my time at Yale. I served three terms on its executive board, and had a handful more votes gone my way, I would be its vice president right now. These aren’t just the sour grapes of a sore loser, though. I’ve lost multiple internal party elections and a Union-wide race. But I have remained steadfast in my commitment to strengthening the institution, regardless of my official title.
It came as no surprise that this week’s debate was an unmitigated disaster. Tim Young, a self-proclaimed “comedian” who deals primarily in COVID-related misinformation, conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden and transphobia, was the guest of honor. In his remarks, he compared transgender people asking to be called by their correct pronouns to proponents of pornography bans and mocked a nonbinary person as “that dude or whatever.”
All the while, he refused to engage with the fundamental project of the Union: debate. To be clear, I’m not arguing that we should refuse to engage with right-wing voices. I enjoy being pushed to challenge assumptions that often go unquestioned in other corners of campus. But constructive debate requires good-faith engagement. It requires a willingness to give and take, to not only pose tough questions to others but also let others do the same to oneself. Mr. Young did nothing of the sort. When confronted with rigorous questions, he deflected or offered circular responses.
Some Union veterans were upset to learn that Mr. Young was scheduled for such an early place on the semester’s calendar. They expressed concerns that his debate would give first years and prospective recruits a misguided impression of our organization. I disagree. Far from being an outlier, Mr. Young represents a growing trend in which the Union is rejecting thoughtful, honest debate in favor of shock-value bigotry or misinformation.
Last fall, we debated with Helen Andrews, editor of The American Conservative. She told me with a straight face that she “hadn’t come to debate gender” at an event whose subject was “Resolved: Build More Single Gender Spaces,”— a question she had insisted on debating. In the spring, we hosted Dasha Nekrasova, a political podcaster who didn’t pretend to engage and laughed off questions instead of responding. Fringe presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, who is spending her time insisting that President Biden debate her, wasn’t even willing to listen to other arguments. She threatened to cancel her engagement unless it was changed from a debate into a “speaker event,” in which she was given the floor for about an hour and no one else was allowed to rebut her.
More and more, the Union isn’t inviting guests suited to its mission of rigorous, thoughtful debate. Willfully turning a blind eye to the consequences, we are platforming — and refusing to even consider disinviting — people who spread outright lies and hatred.
This trend is having a downstream effect on student speeches. The responses members offer to guest speakers are becoming similarly devoid of substance, focusing on rhetorical flair, outrage bait and dog whistles, rather than persuasion and reason. Attendance at debates declines every semester, as growing numbers of members choose to only attend their parties’ events and the bare minimum of two Union debates needed to qualify for voting membership. Members of marginalized communities, especially LGBTQ+ people, are particularly reluctant to attend — and justifiably so. Why voluntarily go to an event where your identity, and not your ideology, is going to be attacked?
At its best, the Yale Political Union is a forum for spirited discourse and open exchange of ideas. But for us to reach that ideal we need to foster an environment in which debate is substantive instead of performative, and people of all backgrounds are valued and heard.
How can we reverse this decline? We all need to demand more of ourselves and our leadership. This means putting in the effort to give speeches that promote a genuine exchange of perspectives instead of grandstanding and barbs, and electing leaders who are committed to this ideal. It means having the courage to advocate for reforms to the Union’s byzantine electoral system, which rewards conformity with conventional wisdom and prioritizes vendettas over visions. As long as we accept an incentive structure that rewards upholding the status quo, the problem will prevail — and the quality of guests and debates will only deteriorate further.
MICHAEL GARMAN is a junior in Grace Hopper College majoring in political science. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org