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Yale’s Culture of Disallowing Discourse

By July 13, 2018

It’s hard to forget your first college move-in day. Emotions are running high as you lug your overstuffed suitcases into your new dorm room. I was about to begin the next chapter of my life at Yale, and I was as ecstatic as I was overwhelmed. I kissed my family goodbye and nervously went to introduce myself to the five other girls who I would now be living with. We quickly bonded over my Frank Sinatra poster and our mutual love of tacos.

However, underneath our long talks and late-night bacon, egg, and cheese runs, there was an unspoken tension that existed surrounding our different political leanings. Unlike most of my peers, I lean conservative. While I don’t keep my political ideology a secret, it is also not the first thing I open with when I meet someone. Because of this, the reactions from my peers wildly vary. A few days into the semester, one of my suitemates learned about my political views and was deeply upset because she didn’t think she could be friends with someone who belonged to a group that she deemed fundamentally immoral. But things changed for the better when we sat down and actually talked policy.

In the months that followed, my suitemates and I began to find common ground on many political and social issues. These discussions were an invaluable educational experience. I learned how to defend my beliefs — and, perhaps more importantly, I learned how to listen to my intellectual opponents. These debates made me realize the value of discourse and disagreement. We could argue until the sun went down and then set our differences aside and get some ice cream.

I feel extremely fortunate to have been a part of these conversations. But I fear that not enough of them are taking place on campus.

One of the incredible things about Yale is that it attracts students from all over the world. Students from all walks of life come to campus and bring with them a host of diverse life experiences and new perspectives. We should seize the opportunity to learn from people who are different from us. Sadly, this is more difficult in practice than in theory. It’s increasingly difficult for students to breach the partisan divide — especially when it comes to discussing political and ideological differences.

In my experience, the political climate on Yale’s campus makes it challenging for students to have open discussions. Students are quick to dismiss ideas as “offensive” rather than trying to understand where they come from. Even though Yale has residential colleges that form smaller, diverse communities within the larger university, students still find ways to surround themselves with people who share their same ideologies. The deeper issue arises, however, when students blatantly refuse to engage with those they disagree with, a practice that is becoming commonplace.

This is not just my perspective. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Yale Daily News, 75 percent of the students surveyed think Yale does not provide a welcoming environment to conservative students. That number is staggering and illustrates the need for more political discourse on campus. Students who enter college with a liberal versus conservative mentality will only have those attitude reinforced by Yale’s anti-intellectual culture of sensitivity.

When it comes to politics, students can be quick to make sharp social judgments without taking a deeper dive into the issues. This is a phenomenon that students and alumni alike have begun to recognize as an issue. Jamie Kirchick, a 2006 alumnus running for Yale’s Board of Trustees, is basing his campaign largely on protecting free speech at Yale. Kirchick blames the administration for “coddling students and indulging their demands to be kept ‘safe’ from statements and ideas they find uncomfortable.” But the administration’s actions are only one part of a much larger problem. The student body itself needs to identify free speech as a priority.

Some of the resistance towards creating a culture of open discourse at Yale comes from a fear that some students might espouse bigoted views. Unfortunately, there are some people who are genuinely ignorant and racist, but assuming that everyone who disagrees with you falls into this category creates a dangerous culture of self-censorship where students are afraid to speak. Instead, we need to give those with opposing beliefs the benefit of the doubt and respect them as our intellectual equals. That being said, if someone actually is espousing racist opinions or ideas we should still hear them out and then explain why their speech is hateful and, more importantly, why they are wrong. It’s best to address hateful speech head on rather than to let it fester underground until it becomes potentially more dangerous.

There is so much to be gained from creating a culture of open dialogue at Yale. I’m not saying that everyone needs to befriend their opponents, or even like them. But we should constantly be challenging each other’s ideas and then try to find common ground. We as students need to change this oppressive political climate of silencing each other and work together to restore civil discourse.

Lily Rogers is a rising sophmore at Yale University and FIRE summer intern

Schools: Yale University