Often, we hear from academics and students alike the pressing need for more debate and open conversations beyond the confines of a campus consensus. Although groups such as Duke Conversations and POLIS’ Bipartisan Leadership Team do provide some spaces for open and unfettered conversation, the problem at heart—the unwillingness to debate genuinely on political issues—still remains largely unaddressed at Duke. The conventional understanding of debate is one characterized by winners verses losers. The principal winner of a debate is one who can cripple the other side intellectually and thus gain the most support from a given audience. This framing of debate as an activity where one gains at the direct expense of the other naturally hinders the desire to converse politically with peers with differing viewpoints. Moreover, the stubbornness on the part of some students to hear views they perceive as wrong or amoral is particularly problematic when individuals have re-centered themselves to the left and right flanks of political belief, with both ends of the spectrum refusing to peer into the logic of the other.
Both wings of the political spectrum can often fall into the trap of moralizing the other side’s ideologies, rather than focusing on the political issues at heart: the most effective system of taxation, healthcare, etc. This fixation onto one end of the political spectrum with no desire to understand the other is understandable in such a divisive age but is, nevertheless, something that can hinder effective political discourse. The increasing salience of ideas like fascism and white supremacy are often cited by the left in order to justify a refusal to compromise with conservatives. Not only does this fail to consider the wide nuances of views espoused by “the right,” but such a dissenting attitude towards compromise can actually lead to the reification of perverse ideologies, as they take on a reactionary force and pick up more disgruntled moderates along the way.
We should instead reframe political discourse around the idea that engaging genuinely with the ideas of those who you feel are amoral is not a form of agreement, but a necessary exercise in intellectual honesty and mutual understanding. Many will continue to disagree over hot-button issues vehemently, but an understanding that those on the other end of the spectrum do not carry maligned intentions is an important step toward more genuine, effective political discourse. In such a politically tumultuous landscape, personal disagreements over significant political developments, like the Trump election, can destroy friendships on this campus. Nonetheless, such a reformed discourse does not imply that all ideas—the iniquity of racism for example—deserve a nuanced debate among conversing peers. However, as part of our Duke experience, we have a duty to question our peers in areas where we disagree or in which we do not feel as though certain arguments have strong logical foundations.
This piece alone stands little chance of altering Duke’s political culture overnight, but it remains our responsibility as Duke students to bring these issues to the forefront. Normalizing conversations over political issues outside of the current zero-sum paradigm dampens the fear of open discourse and facilitates greater understanding. We do ourselves injustice by allowing partisan demagoguery to affect our personal relationships and perceptions of one another’s morals. Attributing immorality to one another’s political beliefs is a slippery slope into deadlock, and often emotional conflict, too. The danger, unsurprisingly, lies in how the issues over which we divide ourselves the most are the ones most desperately in need of cooperation and consensus.
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