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Dear Stephen, Dear Students

a commoner's sense

Dear Stephen,

Can I call you Stephen? I’ll take that as a “yes” and get on with it. I’ve been reading up on you, and while I can definitely see why you rub people the wrong way, I didn’t just skim what others have said about you and call it quits. I read every single one of your pieces for The Chronicle and watched a fair number of your media appearances. Stephen, I listened to what you’ve been saying for the past decade, and I’m writing to tell you that although I hear you, I think you’re due for a reality check.

I know it’s not easy to be conservative on Duke’s campus. That’s true now more than ever. It’s even harder to discuss the challenges of having political interests and getting attacked when you express them because when other communities are facing life threatening situations your discomfort seems irrelevant. The truth is that suffering is relative, and there is no one formula for someone’s identity. While I might value my career and my family above all else, someone else might put their faith first, and thus you have every right to define yourself by your political beliefs and affiliations. If I don’t agree with you, I can try persuade you to see my point of view, but I probably won’t get very far if I deny your experience.

You’re right when you say, “We live in an era when honesty itself has become controversial,” because so much of politics today involves identities and experiences that cannot always be cleanly quantified ("Farewell"). I’m going to tell you flat out that aspects of your reality conflict with my own, but I’m not going to pretend that . If you believe this makes me a sympathizer, know that I don’t pity you, but I’m going to try and empathize with you. I’m pretty sure that alienating you by invalidating your entire experience on the basis of a handful of disagreements (granted they are significant and rather troubling) will just make you angrier, and I doubt you’ll want to listen to me anymore.

Yes, I said “angrier,” thus implying you are angry. Why? Because at first I couldn’t imagine why you would be so upset about a prank on a late night show and so furious for so long about a lacrosse scandal, neither of which impacted you specifically ("Hollywood and the Culture War"). Then I realized it. The prank was directed at a conservative and the scandal victimized a group of White males. You took both personally; they were attacks on your identity. You didn’t think the university did enough to protect people like you from liberal social justice warriors, and it infuriated you. I can imagine you felt terribly underappreciated, unwanted, and devalued because you were too White; too American; too cis-gendered, heterosexual, male; and all-around too common and replaceable to matter. I would be angry too.

So, now that I better understand you, let’s find some common ground. First and foremost, I too think that the synonymity between “conservative” and “hate” is problematic. I’ve heard too many people throw around social justice buzzwords like “cultural appropriation,” “trigger warnings,” “privilege,” and most condemning of all “racist,” “homophobic,” “sexist,” “elitist,” etc. They’re now almost too commonplace to have real impact in important conversations. Just because we hear these words nearly every day and see the “clapbacks” on social media doesn’t mean that the problems have ceased to exist. Too many in the Duke community believe that White privilege does not exist because of the prevalence of White outrage.

It’s too easy for people to avoid something they don’t want to hear by calling it “triggering,” but it’s disrespectful to the people who use trigger and content warnings as therapeutic tools as they recover from PTSD. It’s too easy for people to invalidate someone else they don’t like or want to engage with by calling them “racist” and for Hillary Clinton can inappropriately refer to Congress as a “plantation” to weaponize the horrors of Black American experiences for political gain, but what are they doing to dismantle the institutional legacy of slavery that they continue to profit from? In Paranoia, you were right to say that no one calls these people out and that someone should because misusing these terms to make oneself more comfortable is an incredibly privileged thing to do.

Furthermore, I agree that more should be done for students typically protected under affirmative action. It’s not enough to admit students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We need to acknowledge the challenges they have and will continue to face, support their path to success, and create a culture that does not use affirmative action policy to delegitimize their accomplishments. Without committed follow up affirmative action risks being a “paternalistic,” superficial, tokenizing show and setting a “pernicious” precedent of “condescension” for students of color at prestigious, predominantly White universities ("Making Duke Perfect: Part I").

Lastly, I think your suggestions for campus renovations in "Making Duke Perfect: Part II" are positively spot on. I can’t think of too many students who wouldn’t like renovated dorms and wouldn’t enjoy a community swimming pool on West Campus. You’d be happy to know that we’ve got a swanky new eatery called West Union, 24-hour diner food at Pitchforks, and they’ve dressed up the Bryan Center, so it’s actually kind of comfy. There’s no denying I’m attending the same school you did.

So, I don’t think you’re some type of alien. To be honest, and probably to your chagrin, I think you’ve got quite a lot in common with the typical Duke student. You aren’t terribly unlike the students, faculty, and administrators you so vehemently oppose. I know you don’t believe me, so I’m going to break it down for you. One, fierce ambition. There’s no doubt you, rising through the ranks of the Republican party as you’ve done, are as accomplished and ambitious as many of my peers and as many more would like to be.

Two, you’re opinionated to a fault and will say just about anything to prove your point. I don’t really blame you. We’ve always been the smart one in the room, suddenly we’re surrounded by people who can go toe-to-toe with us every second of every day, and we’ve got to prove ourselves. You said it yourself. Duke students go to “frightening lengths, against any and all evidence to the contrary…to confirm and propel their own worldview” ("Prejudice"). We can’t be wrong, no matter what it takes. You condemn making gross generalizations without providing significant evidence. While lived experience is powerful, relevant, and must be taken seriously; we both know the Duke Lacrosse Scandal made it quite clear that “he said she said” does not a case make. What troubles me is that you’re guilty of the same mistake. You haven’t shown me numbers. For example, in Welcome to the Durham Petting Zoo you claim that “Duke has about as many racists as Durham has museums.” Now, assuming this is true, Duke University has approximately 46 racists.

Three, you’re good at winning arguments. You’re so compelling you’ve convinced yourself. Every form of media has a bias, especially those with individual hosts, so you insisting that “news shows like the ‘O’Reilly Factor’ and ‘Hannity & Colmes’” provide “an exceptionally fair and accurate view” of anything show you’re naive enough to fall for your own showmanship ("Persecution").

Four, you look critically at others, to judge, to analyze, to claim that our scholarly knowledge gives us understanding; but you also ignore your own identities, challenges, flaws, and issues. While you berate Duke for requiring “every student engage in cross-cultural inquiry to graduate, [while] there is no requirement to learn about America or larger Western civilization”, you are guilty of the very same ("America: the Forgotten Campus Culture"). Just as your critics, Carly Knight and Corey Sobel, insist your actions “indicate a close-mindedness to criticism and a resistance to any worldview that doesn’t align very much with [your own]”, so do theirs. Knight and Sobel’s disbelief that you truly attended Duke demonstrates they live with the fiction that there is a universal Duke experience. 

Can thousands of students from all walks of life really have the same memories and takeaways from their time here? No. Is it narrow-minded to assume so? Yes.

Five, because you fail to introspect, you assume your reality is everyone else’s. You say “History has bestowed [us] with a great blessing,” but you forget that history is also rife with institutionalized violence and discrimination. I understand that can be uncomfortable, and it would be easier if people’s differences were washed away, but we don’t live in a colorblind society where diversity doesn’t exist. People’s unique experiences matter. They make our society glitter in unexpected ways and places, and we would not be the United States of America without them. I shouldn’t have to remind you, a scholar and lover of our great country, that America was founded to protect those persecuted for their difference, that we won our war of independence because we believed strongly that diversity can grow into greatness.

So, for what it’s worth, while your attempts to inflict your worldview on the rest of the country are acts of immature overcompensation which have dangerous implications given your status, I don’t believe you deserved to be institutionally condemned. You made no secret of your opinions when you were here, yet you managed to emerge the same person as you were when you arrived. Your university allowed you to live in a cloud of self-indulgent arrogance and frightening ignorance. Duke failed you. To disavow you would be to deny that failure, when instead we should be trying to correct it. We should be committed to fostering true diversity of mind and body.

Amani Carson is a Trinity senior. Her column, "a commoner's sense" runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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