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After rhetoric

The posturing of the election is over. There’s a rare pause in campus and national rhetoric; people are thinking. They no longer have to convince themselves that the candidate they supported is perfect.

Of course, we can only expect a short breather before the Republicans are again accused of unflinchingly killing poor urban, orphaned children and Democrats are again accused of being girlie, tax-and-spend anti-Christs. So let’s take advantage of this moment of relative introspection; it’s something that this country and certainly this campus could use.

Campaigners and strategists seek short-term dominance, not a healthy society. Any self-doubt they have just makes them scream more loudly. Republicans can easily cow Democrats by questioning their masculinity and patriotism while Democrats seek to paint Republicans as provincial and/or cruel.

Little room is left for those who could see selective compromise as a road to strength or those who think redistribution of wealth can be harmful to all members of society. And that’s the point. Rhetoric is designed to limit choice and thought.

Although it makes sense that national campaigners seek to draw caricatures of each other in 15-second bite-sized attacks for television, it doesn’t make sense for a dialogue on Duke’s campus. Yet people do it anyway. Take, for example, the discussion of race, ethnicity and religion on campus. Anyone who deviates from the politically correct line is demonized. The veracity of his argument is no longer the first consideration. All that people at Duke want to determine is whether or not the argument is politically correct.

I’m not suggesting that we should embrace discrimination, but rather that we should disprove it on its factual and logical inaccuracies. Although the issues involved can be sensitive, that is not a good enough reason to poison debate and dialogue. We don’t need to attack the people who make the arguments; we could just consider the arguments themselves.

The self-proclaimed opponents of discrimination know that they can intimidate their opponents into silence. They don’t need superior logic to win the debate, only a larger megaphone and a more complicated theory of discrimination, neo-discrimination or neo-neo-discrimination so that only those who have gone to graduate school can contribute to the debate. They are the protesters who seek to not just block Campus Drive every few years, but they want to block thought and debate. We need participants in debates, not dictators.

Many on campus are scared of honestly discussing race, ethnicity and religion, along with many other issues that could bring politically tension. As a result, people on campus only broach sensitive issues in small groups of people that are already likely to have the same opinions. People become so scared of rebuke and venomous confrontation that they avoid speaking across the political spectrum. Isolated communities of thought form. As a result of the lack of open dialogue, few ideas get challenged.

Although it is true that social and political intimidation on campus holds down the number of discriminatory thoughts expressed publicly, there is a price. Like people converted to religion by force, many on campus go through the motions of being politically correct. But what do they really think? As we saw a few weeks ago, every once in a while someone slips up and blurts out something that is logically questionable and somewhat offensive. But destroying people who speak their mind only further intimidates the dialogue. The harder we make it for people to discuss sensitive issues, the more likely it is that the only people who publicly speak outside of the politically correct line will be extreme. We need to encourage people to express their ideas without fear of fire and brimstone so that they can be debated instead of repressed to volatility.

It is better to convince people of an argument than to intimidate them into believing it. When we drop the rhetoric and allow our arguments to be exposed to questioning, we may convince those that think differently or even re-think our own arguments. We have to expose ourselves to the possibility of being offended to be able to win the service of minds instead of just lips.


Paul Musselwhite is a Trinity junior.


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