“Why should I respect a Republican or Democrat’s political views on campus when he or she draws conclusions completely contrary to my own?” Some of us at Duke answer this question with, “I shouldn’t have to. If my opponent is wrong, then there is simply no reason to respect what I deem to be conclusively wrong.”
These individuals operate in a world of black-and-white policy answers. But it surprises me, at a school that arguably teaches one of the best liberal arts curricula in our country, with hundreds of professors teaching and debating conflicting ideas with one another every day, that any Duke student can come away from his or her studies passionately believing that he or she has found definitively right answers to America’s policy problems at the humble age of 22. These students are paying $60,000 a year to ignore the prying hands of a Duke education that is desperately trying to open their minds.
Today I’d like to make a threefold argument that one should respect the conclusions of the Duke students that one disagrees with politically. By respect, I mean not immediately dismissing opposing conclusions when presented with them, and when engaging in debate, being sure to attack the logic or content of the conclusion rather than the character of the individual espousing it.
First and foremost, if a person doesn’t respect the conclusions of the opposing side, he or she is closed off to aspects that might unite him or her with the opposition. I have often found that I am in agreement with my Democratic friends on the “ends,” if not the “means.” They want to alleviate poverty. I want to alleviate poverty. They want racial and gender equality. I want the same. It might falsely affirm one’s beliefs to think an opponent doesn’t truly care about some “end”—some segment of the population or some clearly defined problem that everyone agrees exists. But this ignores overriding shared interests between us to achieve similar objectives, albeit through different mechanisms.
Second, let’s assume that there is a situation in which one disagrees with the “ends” that someone contains within their conclusion. In situations like this, it is very likely a matter of differing priorities. For example, there is oftentimes disagreement between those who dissimilarly value “personal liberty” and “political liberty.” Political liberty is the expression of the majority sentiment, usually through elected representatives voting on the people’s behalf. Personal liberties are rights of the individual set aside for protection—we’re all afforded free speech regardless of whether the majority wants to take it away.
When the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 later this year, they will in part be ruling on a tension between these two liberties. Those in favor of upholding Proposition 8 argue that it was a demonstration of political liberty—as a referendum it represents the voice of the people. Those who disavow Proposition 8 argue it violates the personal liberties of the LGBTQ community. Therein we have a tension between two conflicting priorities, one valuing political liberty, the other valuing personal liberty. My guess is that an overwhelming majority of the Duke student population would value the personal liberty over the political liberty in this situation, but that does not wholly mean political liberty is a valueless priority. Nor does it mean those in America (or in the Duke community) who might value political liberty over personal liberty are homophobic. On the contrary, there might be some citizens of America who voted against Proposition 8 and even support gay marriage, but feel that the will of the majority must be guarded and respected. These people simply have differently valued priorities, and engaging an opponent helps to discover this fact, and maybe even better convince that opponent to shift those priorities.
Lastly, I’ve constructed this argument on the premise that there are shades of gray in policy conclusions, but that’s not necessarily the case in some areas (i.e., slavery was unequivocally wrong). Let’s assume a Duke student really is just a racist, sexist, homophobic monster that comes to an inherently wrong conclusion. In situations such as this, I think it is best to uncover the underlying fallacies in logic/data that have led this person to his or her erroneous conclusions, and demonstrate with one’s superior logic/data why he or she is patently wrong. Attacking the monster’s character might make one feel better, but it won’t change the monster’s mind or educate the public. Best to demonstrate the logical or empirical fallacies in the monster’s argument loudly and widely—if one can’t convince the monster to change his or her mind, at the very least one can help the public realize the logical erroneousness of the monster’s conclusion.
These are the principles under which I try to engage my Duke political opponents in debate (who are very often my friends). I ask others at Duke to consider adopting them as well, if only to allow for more vibrant campus discussion on some of our country’s most significant problems.
Daniel Strunk is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Thursday.