Commentary: Arguing Against Ourselves

R.Haltmaier/The Phillipian

When the State of the Academy (SOTA) was released two weeks ago, everyone seemed surprised by a statistic they all should have expected. 93.6 percent of conservative respondents expressed that they “felt the need to censor themselves due to their political leaning,” with 79.9 percent of independents and 79.4 percent of libertarians echoing the sentiment. In the days that followed, people repeatedly brought this statistic up, but nobody discussed whether the self-censorship was good or not. From my experience at the SOTA dinner hosted by The Phillipian, everyone seemingly wants others to voice their opinions, regardless of how controversial they are. But if so many of us believe that everyone should feel comfortable sharing their perspective, why don’t they?

From talking to conservative friends, the main motivation for hiding their views is out of fear of judgement. They expect people to quickly shut them down — a fear only exacerbated by the fact that the ratio of liberal to conservative students at Andover is around 44 percent to 16 percent, according to SOTA. The way forward, then, is to prove that assumption wrong. We should show that people are more open to dialogue than these conservative students believe.

Here’s the problem: they’re mostly right. In the pursuit of political diversity, the enemy is not the other side of the aisle, but human nature itself. Even if we all say “we need more different political opinions,” very few of us believe that under the surface. Conservative students call for it because they hold those “different opinions,” and liberal students agree because if they don’t, they would be close-minded and intolerant. If the situations were flipped, each side would be saying and thinking what the other is now. I am no exception: at the SOTA dinner I leapt to disagree with the student sitting next to me before listening to his rationale. Even as we discussed how to increase political diversity, I was making the same kind of judgements that led to the issue in the first place.

When it comes to contentious topics, whether it be abortion, gun control, or immigration, discourse creates such emotional outbursts because each topic is tied to more than just your political affiliation. Under the surface, they say something about your value systems. Your background. Your identity. Your views on abortion say something about where you believe human life begins, and most likely divulge your stance on religion. Immigration relates to how you value liberty and security, and is most likely subconsciously tied to your past experiences with members of certain racial groups.

When we argue on any major issue, it elicits strong reactions because to be proven wrong means to have part of your identity and upbringing also proven wrong. Losing an argument on gun control as someone who believes in unrestricted Second Amendment rights is to perhaps lose the formative moments you spent hunting with your father as a kid. Here, dialogue and discussion is just debate with a kinder-sounding title. People don’t work towards common ground, they compete to establish their viewpoint (and therefore their identity) as the proper one.

It’s this relation of political views and identity that helps drive the sociological phenomenon of homophily — the academic version of “birds of a feather flock together.” Demography and shared experiences play a pivotal role in developing friendships, and political belief is intertwined with both. As sociologist Mario Small of the University of Chicago puts it in an interview with the “Washington Post,” two mothers at a daycare may never explicitly say “Oh my goodness, you also believe in the elimination of ‘Roe v. Wade,’” but the daycare exerts a powerful role in selecting people with similar backgrounds. They most likely are around the same age, of a similar class, and share views on how to raise a child properly.

In an analogous fashion, Andover’s teachers are likely to believe in education, financial aid, and research, which all are tied to similar perspectives on other issues: activism, abortion, immigration; the list goes on. According to past “mock election” surveys of the faculty, a vast majority are unsurprisingly liberal. Andover students are primarily from the metropolitan Northeast, are all around the same age, and are similarly academically inclined. Indirect identity markers bring about our institution’s Democratic tilt.

Both parts of why conservatives feel they can’t share their views are tied to this linkage between identity and politics. The judgements and arguments over emotionally fraught issues, as well as the majority-minority dynamic that pressures people into silence, stem from how we see our background in relation to said issues. Considering these two truths — that Andover is by nature going to be a liberal institution and that everyone wants to be around viewpoints similar to their own — you might expect to see more people justifying self-censorship as a necessary evil of this place. But still, we seem to rationally desire (on both sides of the aisle) a space in which liberals and conservatives can work together to remedy the extreme partisanship that has opened a chasm in our cultural climate.

The way forward, as far as I can tell, is by forcing the other side upon us. Maybe it’s the Philo member in me, but I’ve seen my opinions shift the most when I’m required to debate them formally. I haven’t experienced any radical epiphanies, but it’s forced me to legitimately consider what other perspectives bring to the table as opposed to simply trying to invalidate them. It’s by nature of the exercise — since you don’t always choose which side to argue for — that you sometimes end up taking a position that you personally might detest. The us vs. them competition is repurposed so you end up fighting against where your upbringing and value systems lie. Critical engagement is preserved.

Some humanities classes already do this as an exercise, but it’s not as prevalent as our times necessitate. And this certainly isn’t a standard procedure for student discussions. But if we truly want to work with the other side of the aisle — to not just reassert our old values as the conversation comes to a close or say we want diversity of thought to keep social face — I think requiring people to take the opposite perspective as an experiment is the strongest solution. To properly allow for open bipartisan collaboration, we need to take the debate raging underneath any discussion and flip it on its head.

Quinn Robinson is a three year Upper from Wellesley, Mass. Contact the writer at qrobinson