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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

We need thoughtful views, cautiously stated

Middlebury seems to be an institution that values justice. We certainly talk about it constantly, so if one can infer importance from repetition, we do value it. Climate Justice, Reproductive Justice, Housing Justice, Environmental Justice. But to be able to have productive discussions about those topics, we (as students and citizens) need to have a sense of justice that is grounded in more than a vague sense of ‘what feels right’ or the values that our community tells us are correct. This lack of a tried and tested, thoughtful and rigorous, ethical framework to defend our convictions is a dangerous weakness. 

Conservatives often view America’s elite colleges and universities as factories for what commentators have described as ‘woke Marxist culture warriors,’ with administrations hoping to produce a vanguard of left-wing radicals. To be fair, this is not an entirely inaccurate accusation. Historically, universities have served as a breeding ground for far-left movements like Students for a Democratic Society, which, in turn, spawned the Weather Underground, a terrorist organization. At present, the Democratic Socialists for America find some of their strongest support at colleges and universities, with hundreds of chapters nationwide. 

But this claim still misunderstands what happens on the American college campus. While there is a small minority of students who might be accurately called aspiring professional revolutionaries, from what I have seen at Middlebury, the vast majority are not. Living within a community with an illusion of ideological uniformity like Middlebury can create a skin-deep allegiance to certain values on the part of many, but that is not the same as molding a true believer. 

Much of this comes down to the nature of the contemporary college campus. Most students attend college to get an education and have the “college experience.” They do not come to be turned into ideological crusaders. Both in and outside of the classroom, students exist in a space dominated by left-wing voices, concepts, norms, and expectations. Shane Silverman’s article recently reminded us just how rampant this can be. Within the Middlebury bubble, there is an illusion of ordered uniformity in which we can see how specific political and intellectual perspectives are not merely accepted but taken for granted. Occam's razor tells us to look for parsimony if we want to discover the truth. In this instance, the simple truth is that most students become vaguely progressive because it is easy

John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty makes a rousing defense of near-absolute free speech. One of his most important arguments is how censorship and monopoly of discourse will be to the dominant party’s detriment. Without an adversary to encourage rigorous debate, they lose the opportunity to think rigorously. Just as sharpening a knife requires a whetstone, honing an argument necessitates open debate. No viewpoint ever became any more thoughtful or incisive while being spewed unopposed from the podium. 

I fear that after not facing any serious resistance to the supposedly unanimous viewpoint for some time, people lose the ability to defend it effectively. Growing up in a (relatively) stable liberal democracy, it would take most people a second to structure a thoughtful defense of that system. I suspect that this is the root of what some on the right call outrage culture. Without the ability to articulate why they think what they think, people can quickly turn to anger. I’d argue that happens for the simple reason that when you build your identity on assumptions and they are questioned, you see yourself as being questioned. Without practice in separating politics from identity, or even practice in questioning one's own assumptions, there is no good outcome. 

There are practical consequences to such a lack of ideological introspection. I recently saw a picture of a pro-Palestinian protest with several people holding a banner saying “Reproductive Justice Means a Free Palestine.” I understand the intersectional argument of a single struggle, but I don’t see how people can so easily bridge the chasm of values and ideology that divide Western reproductive rights activists and both Hamas and Fatah. Could most of the people chanting such a slogan articulate what that means in practice? To those who can effectively make such an argument, I welcome the discussion. We need it, desperately.

Although they do not dominate our campus space in the same way, the illusion of uniformity makes campus conservatives just as intellectually lazy. I know many right-wing college students don’t bother to seriously engage with politics on campus. With little chance of a serious discussion and a fear of ostracization, why would they? This inevitably leaves the space to be occupied by the radical fringe. That remainder is happy to feed an outrage machine by saying truly absurd things, in it for the thrill of glorious battle more than the prosaic reality of discourse. 

Simply put, if we care about the good, (and thus the pursuit of justice—real justice) we have to ground it in something substantive. Suppressing any alternative perspective with a thick blanket of dogma might create the illusion of deeply held views, but it is just that—an illusion. Students know what they are supposed to think, but I fear that few have thought about why they think those things. The tendency to suffocate the chaotic and messy dialectical process required to produce deeply considered perspective is not strength. It is weakness. Middlebury’s failure to educate students on how to articulate and defend their views and values politely and effectively will, in the long run, damage the students, the institution, and our society. Without exposure to the best thought-out versions of the ideologies we disagree with, our institution's value degrades. With that, the students of those institutions suffer, for they are not receiving the best education and will lack the knowledge of how to defend their conception of justice and change the minds of those who disagree with them. If our society's most educated and most devoted to justice are unable to convince others to agree with them, the society suffers: We live in a democracy, and restating dogma doesn’t swing any votes in Pennsylvania or Arizona. If you want to win instead of simply feeling morally superior, you need the tools to convince people you are right.