“Being a conservative feels like a joke at Duke.” I don’t often agree with my friend on political issues, but he’s right about this one. In this age of acceptance, you’d be hard-pressed to find a group on campus more unpopular than Duke’s conservative population. From the posts we make on social media, up to the professors we expel from the classroom, it seems like students here just aren’t comfortable with political disagreement.
And how could we ever be? A recent poll of first years found that 74.6% self-identified as “liberal” or “very liberal. With one ideology dominant on campus, debate ceases to exist; we no longer can have civil discussions, because there is nothing to disagree about. Not only is this a boring way to go about college, but it’s also at odds with the fundamental purpose of a liberal education–the pursuit of which is rooted in seeking to understand those with opposing worldviews.
Coming into Duke, I imagined it to be a melting pot of ideas, where everyone could be heard without fear of being rebuked, silenced, or ostracized. My friends on the right know more of the opposite to be true. They worry that if they express their political views, they run the risk of losing friends, lower grades and fewer job opportunities. One student even debated forming a club to promote his conservative politics on campus, but he feared the associated social ramifications far outweighed any potential benefits. Proving their point, all of those who talked with me preferred to not be publicly outed as Republican to the Chronicle. This is deeply disheartening: considering that politics can be such a huge part of our identity, it can be particularly isolating for the roughly 6% of us who find themselves following a seemingly forbidden ideology at Duke.
Even as a member of the winning team, my political existence here has been anything but fulfilling. After all, what’s the point of playing a fixed game?
As a liberal at Duke, political discussions are mind-numbingly-agreeable; unless you’re talking to a borderline communist, your politics will be challenged more often when talking to a brick wall than when talking to the average student. And if you’re undogmatic enough to disagree with the left on a select issue or two, you too will find that it often serves to stay silent. Here, you don’t learn how to carefully formulate your own ideas, how to present and debate your own beliefs, or how to peacefully negotiate a middle ground with your political adversaries–you only learn how to properly rehearse the truths deemed acceptable by the university and the student population. If Duke’s purpose is to cultivate the future leaders and freethinkers of our generation, then I can’t help but think that we’ve failed in that regard.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but unless the university begins admitting a more nationally- reflective number of right-wingers and Trump-supporters, the burden falls on each and every one of us to stand up for Duke’s conservative voices. This manifests in a number of concessions we all need to make:
1. Disagreements are a valuable part of any healthy society. As John Stuart Mill points out in his essay “On Liberty,” there are two potential outcomes from any civil disagreement. First, we could be wrong, and our political adversary could be right. If this is the case, by engaging with that person we may be moved closer to the truth. Secondly, our adversary may be wrong, and we may be right. Should this be the case, by engaging with that person we may better understand the truth and be better able to defend it in the future. We benefit in either scenario.
Exposure to differing views also leads to lower rates of political polarization. Americans suffer from not being able to understand their political adversaries – and it’s gotten so bad that significant numbers on either side think that the country would be “better off if large numbers of opposing partisans in the public today ‘just died.’” The road to recovery is an arduous one, and one perhaps with an unreachable destination, but it begins when we associate our political foes with people we know personally. Once we’ve humanized our opponents, we can start to understand why they see the world the way they do. Here, we are better positioned to reach conclusions, compromises, and solutions that work for larger portions of the population.
2. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a conservative or a Trump supporter. In fact, unless you’re prepared to discount 74 million Americans as morally bankrupt, you must concede that there are a number of legitimate, non-bigoted reasons that perfectly rational people would vote for Trump. You may strongly disagree with those reasons, but you must acknowledge their existence.
It also helps to understand that partisanship is largely an accident of where we were born, who raised us, and a number of other factors that are out of our control. Researchers have even speculated that, across a population, 40-60% of all ideological variance is genetically influenced. Although you’re probably from a metro area, with wealthy, college-educated parents, you just as easily could have been born into a much more rural, red part of the country. If that were the case, you’d likely hold drastically different opinions than those which you currently hold. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have your convictions, but you can’t assume that anyone who opposes you is a bad person–their lived experience has simply brought them to a different conclusion.
3. You could be wrong. Just as our foe’s lived experience could have brought them to the wrong conclusion, so too could we have been led astray – at no particular fault of our own. Recognizing that we are fallible, and that we are likely wrong about some of our beliefs is essential if we want to have productive discussions across the political aisle.
With all of this said, one question still remains: how can I improve political diversity on campus, even as a member of the majority? I’m just a chem major, but I’ve got a couple suggestions. First, think about the issues where you disagree with the majority. Cultivate them and practice standing up for your beliefs in the face of the masses. Don’t let others bully you into silence or into an opinion you don’t hold. Second, give your opponents the benefit of the doubt. Understand that most people genuinely want to live in a better tomorrow–they just disagree with how to achieve this end. Similarly, don’t bully others into silence. So long as your adversaries are able to make their points with courtesy, they deserve to be heard. Third, when arguing with someone, try to restate their argument in terms they can accept. This ensures that you’re not making a strawman of their argument and that you are genuinely invested in understanding the way in which they see things. Finally, don’t tolerate bigotry. Most people who you disagree with here won’t be racists, homophobes, misogynists, or bigoted in other ways, but that doesn’t mean these people don’t exist. Be vigilant against intolerance whenever it’s encountered.
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And with that, good luck and happy arguing.