It never fails. Pick up The Chronicle and open to the back—you’ll find some 19-year-old anxious to let you know his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the peace talks in Darfur. Mention the State of the Union Address and you’ve got someone breathing down your throat about how Bush is an (unprintable) and the Iraq war was a horrible mistake.
As Duke students, we pride ourselves on our political involvement and don’t back down from letting others know where we stand. We engage our opponents in political discussion and come away feeling enriched by it—we’ve participated in the great exchange of ideas that is democracy. Or have we?
The more I listen to the kinds of political talks we have on campus, the more disappointed I am. Most campus politics never rise beyond the level of fashionable T-shirt slogan or the facile jibe at one candidate or another that serves as a quick mike-check for the party affiliation of those around you. In the rare case of a confrontation, each party spits up some watery, undigested facts from a newspaper article they read while procrastinating a few months ago, agrees to disagree and walks away.
Am I arguing for more in-depth discussion of politics on campus? Should students be working harder to persuade others of their views, or coming up with more original and interesting facts on crucial issues? Not at all. In fact, I think we should spend far less time and effort on politics than we do now.
Political conflicts are notoriously difficult to resolve. There are enormously intelligent people on every side of every issue whose job it is to know the facts. Political discussions are less exchanges of information than they are clashes of belief systems, and your chances of changing the politics of your opponent with a few statistics are about equal to your chances of changing her religion. Persuasion is futile.
But let’s suppose you try anyway. With the possible exception of those students who choose to major in political science or public policy, very few of us spend an adequate amount of time reading intelligent literature regarding our government. Of those who “do their homework,” even less bother to dig deeper once they have found those facts or quotes (or, in some of the more depressing cases, e-mail chainletters) that support their first instincts on the matter.
Hence the typical campus political discussion resulting in two students armed with uninteresting banalities out to change their opponent’s stance without any intention of budging on their own. In the event one party is confronted with an unforeseen fact, he retreats and makes himself a mental note to find more evidence to back up his pre-determined claim.
While you could make the argument that these problems plague the population at large (they do), let’s not kid ourselves: we are students. Most of our columns and political pontifications could be slapped silly by anything you read in Harper’s or Atlantic Monthly—at least when they aren’t directly stolen from what greater minds have said in those exact places—and we, like everyone else, aren’t going to change our beliefs because a few facts stand in their way.
If you’re a liberal, you won’t budge because you’re an idealist, and your conservative opponent is closed-minded. If you’re a conservative, you won’t budge because you have values, and your liberal opponent has been brainwashed by academia and the media. Enough already.
I’m beginning to think that political apathy may be the most intelligent political stance of them all. It enables you to go about your life worrying about the things that you can understand and control. You never have to engage in shallow bouts of self-expression masked as intelligent political discussion.
Unfortunately, it also requires great strength to stand up to the popular consensus that we have an obligation to hold inevitably reductionist opinions about matters far too complicated to resolve. That’s a strength I don’t have, but I’ve started taking the first step. When I hear someone brashly announce their politics to the world, and I disagree with them, I’m trying to do the most courageous thing of all: hold my tongue.
John Miller is a Trinity junior. His column appears every other Wednesday.
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