The Right to be Heard?3 Comments
“We want to have diversity in everything except thought,” Jonathan Haidt ’85 said to a packed Harkness Hall classroom. Haidt, who was invited by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program to speak about political correctness on college campuses, was playing a satirical character: an admissions officer for Coddle University, Haidt’s allegory for modern universities’ tendency to shelter their students from uncomfortable ideas.
With his September article in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Haidt joined an ongoing conversation over what should and shouldn’t be said on college campuses. A liberal psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Haidt nonetheless sided with conservatives, criticizing colleges for “coddling” their students.
Haidt’s visit coincided with a campus controversy about which he likely would have had something to say. On Sept. 12, Aryssa Damron ’18 appeared on Fox News, where she criticized the Divinity School’s decision to invite #BlackLivesMatter activist DeRay McKesson as a guest lecturer. During the interview, she also shared her experience of being a conservative on a largely liberal campus. After her interview was aired, some Yale students used social media outlets, such as the Facebook page Overheard at Yale, to make personal attacks on Damron, including asking her to stay away from campus.
Damron’s views, as well as the subsequent backlash against her, raise questions about intellectual diversity at Yale and students’ openness, or lack thereof, to alternative perspectives — dilemmas that organizations like the Buckley program are trying to address.
“The mission of the Buckley program is to promote intellectual debate at Yale,” Buckley president Zach Young ’17 said. “This stems from the belief that for ideas to flourish, we need to be exposed to a variety of views.”
During his talk, Haidt described campus climates that force people to walk on eggshells and make students afraid to speak their minds. Yet some liberals might respond that students should be hesitant to say certain things — much of what we say, the argument goes, offends those around us even if we don’t mean it.
Conservative and liberal Yalies disagree on a wide range of issues. But how do we decide when to engage with our intellectual opponents, and when to condemn them?
* * *
Engagement is the norm at a Yale Political Union debate — but that doesn’t mean people don’t disagree.
Although the YPU aims to provide an intellectual forum where the best argument can win, members say that participants very rarely leave debates with their viewpoints changed. Instead, most members treat the debates and talks as an exercise in defending their own viewpoints. Amalia Halikias ’15, a former member of the YPU’s Tory Party, said that the vast majority of students and speakers view the debates as performative in nature, and that it is rare for people to leave with their minds changed.
Indeed, some members say that YPU debates are set up to encourage a rivalry. William Strench ’18, secretary of the Conservative Party, noted that there is even a physical separation between debating parties. He added that when a very conservative or a very liberal speech is given on the floor, one can expect hisses from at least half of the room.
“Of course each side will think the other side’s opinions are wrong and lead to bad moral outcomes,” he said.
Despite their stubborn disagreements, members of the YPU made it clear that they respect one another’s opinions. Conservatives interviewed generally pointed to the Yale Political Union as a space where their views are not only shared, but also contested in a balanced fashion.
“The Union is the only place I have found on campus where liberals and leftists will actively listen to the arguments being made by more conservative members at Yale,” chairman of the Federalist Party Eric DeVillier ’17 said.
This sentiment is not surprising given that the Union was founded in 1934 to combat the insular political culture on campus at the time. The organization is also structurally bi-partisan, containing seven parties across the political spectrum, each with different and often opposing ideologies.
Of these seven parties, four — the Federalist Party, the Conservative Party, the Tory Party and the Party of the Right — identify as conservative groups. Two more lean left, and one is independent. Yet despite the numerical imbalance, members of the union insist that the YPU is not simply a safe haven for conservatives to gather, but rather a place where both liberal and conservative viewpoints are defended and challenged in an academic fashion.
Layla Treuhaft-Ali ’17, the chairman of the Party of the Left, said that her party considers members of the right “worthy opponents” who pose important challenges that must be addressed.
And while the debate format brings disagreements to the fore, members from different parties said that respect and trust make for open and inclusive discussion.
According to YPU president Simon Brewer ’16, a member of the Party of the Left, “We avoid the buzzwords and sloppy arguments that too often get tossed around in mainstream political discourse in the U.S., and instead ask for careful, nuanced conversation.”
YPU members from parties on the right agreed. Helder Toste ’16, a member of the Tory Party, said he has always felt respected during YPU debates. And DeVillier said that loaded labels like “racist” and “classist”, frequently used by liberal students outside the YPU to describe conservatives, were less apt to be thrown around in a YPU debate.
“These labels are often unproductive, wrong and quite stupidly applied and defended, but mostly everyone knows this and the Union does a good job keeping it at a minimum,” he said.
By pushing members to respond intellectually rather than emotionally to controversial political issues, the YPU creates a space in which a variety of viewpoints can be heard. But some topics are too sensitive for such an approach.
According to DeVillier, “Issues like marriage and abortion are many times off the table and will not be discussed, largely because they are very passionate issues that can be easily derailed in a debate.”
* * *
While the YPU can avoid touchy issues in its debates, some organizations on campus can’t avoid such ideological clashes.
In April this year, on-campus pro-life advocacy group Choose Life At Yale was denied full membership status in Dwight Hall’s Social Justice Network after a year of provisional membership, as is required of all organizations petitioning for full membership. Evy Behling ’17, who is the Secretary of CLAY, described the group’s failed attempt to join Dwight Hall’s network as “marginalizing.”
“The prevailing view among the cabinet was that what CLAY was doing was not social justice,” she said. “They didn’t accept our definition of social justice, which is disappointing.”
According to a former Dwight Hall member who wished to remain anonymous, the vote among Dwight Hall’s 90-member cabinet was highly divisive and raised questions of how the organization could be more tolerant and engage groups with alternate viewpoints. The former member denied that CLAY was excluded due to ideological differences, instead saying that the deciding factor was CLAY’s involvement with the Crisis Pregnancy Center, which the former member said spreads false and harmful information to women.
“It’s not untrue that Dwight Hall leans left and has many liberals, but that is not why we denied CLAY membership,” the former member said.
Before this, CLAY had also been denied membership to the Women’s Center twice. And while the Dwight Hall member’s explanation for excluding CLAY refrained from overt moral claims, the Women’s Center directly challenged CLAY’s stance in explaining the decision to deny the group membership.
A statement provided to the News by the Women’s Center noted that while the decision was not meant to “marginalize” CLAY, the two groups are at odds on fundamental moral issues.
“The Women’s Center is proudly and unapologetically pro-choice,” the statement reads. “Anti-choice policies for which CLAY stands are undoubtedly harmful to women. This claim is supported by history, public health and the law.”
Behling said that while the Women’s Center should be a resource for all women on campus, their official pro-choice stance meant that it is not welcoming to women with other viewpoints.
Since its failed attempts to join the two umbrella groups, CLAY has continued to function as an independent organization, and will host its annual pro-life conference “Vita et Veritas” in early October. And although the goal of the conference is to share a pro-life perspective with the entire campus, Behling admits that it will be hard to attract liberals. She said that if CLAY had been admitted to Dwight Hall or the Women’s Center, the conference would have been more likely to attract a more diverse group.
* * *
“Almost every professor I’ve had bashes on conservative ideas and politicians,” said Toste.
In his “Issues Approach to Biology” class, Toste said, his professor spent an entire class mocking creationists. Uncomfortable with this, Toste filed a complaint with his residential college dean, which made its way to the Biology Department. In future iterations of the same class, Toste said those specific slides about creationists were removed. He added that this example was indicative of his general experience of liberal professors mocking conservative ideas.
In Toste’s case, Yale administrators and faculty consciously accommodated his conservative views. But no matter what the University or anyone else does, those views will remain underrepresented on campus for the foreseeable future.
Political science lecturer John Stoehr, who teaches “Classics in Political Journalism,” said that it is reasonable for conservative students at Yale to feel marginalized among peers.
“We are in a state that’s run by the Democratic Party, we are in a state where unions prevail and we are in a state where liberal issues are predominant in terms of social issues,” he said. “If you are an anti-abortionist, you might feel on the outside, just like a lot of traditional Catholics in New Haven and the state of Connecticut probably feel, as if they’re looking from the outside in.”
Even so, the majority of conservative students interviewed said that Yale and its community is generally accepting of their viewpoints — at least more so than many similar institutions.
“I am very grateful to be at Yale,” Behling said. “On some other campuses, students are not even allowed to start pro-life groups.”
Strench echoed that sentiment. He said that he does not feel marginalized despite disagreeing with his friends on many important issues.
“It would be easier if everyone agreed with me about everything, but Yale isn’t worth attending if I’m not going to be challenged intellectually,” he said. “So I’m okay with being disagreed with, and, in a little over a year, it seems like Yale has overall tolerated disagreeing with me.”
History professor John Gaddis credits initiatives such as the Buckley Program with raising the profile of conservatives on campus, adding that discussions between liberal and conservative voices are reasonably well balanced now.
And while some conservatives might feel that the deck is stacked against them at Yale, that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready for the fight.
“The prevailing attitude is not condemning nor sympathetic,” Behling said. “The onus is on conservatives to speak up and defend their viewpoints.”