Campus orthodoxies strangle healthy discourse

Illustration by Kat Barton

By Bradley Davis

Students at Lewis & Clark have a strained connection to politics. They are much more aware of the world around them than the general public and even most college students. LC students are noble and empathetic in their concerns for discourse and the consequences of speech, but debates rarely take place. I often find myself wondering if the concern is earnest, or just performative.

It is no secret that LC skews liberal. There is a certain orthodoxy among students and professors — not quite a cohesive doctrine, but one that can certainly be defined by what it is not. The school cultivates this image, misguidedly focusing on the school’s politics rather than the liberal arts. What upperclassman can forget the school promoting photos of the anti-administration protests in 2015 on its Facebook page? The college co-opted this to demonstrate the administration’s progressiveness and willingness for dialogue, although then-president Glassner would not engage with protesters. For many underclassmen their first glance into campus life was a curation of how acceptable dissent is. But dissent from what?

It would be ridiculous to think that any, let alone an appreciable number of, LC students would be in favor of violence. Perpetrating assault on any student, especially Tanguy Muvuna, would be an anathema to campus values. Nonetheless, students wanted to protest and so they did. Eventually, students raised some important concerns and the community is likely better for some of the conversations that ensued. But those who wanted to attend class to interrogate the problems or social structures of the day were stripped of an intellectual space to do so while protesters developed the very hierarchy they sought to critique. Organizers quickly became exclusive and began to shout down and shame students with different ideas for protest. Marginalized voices once again were ignored as students in positions of authority asserted their own, though ostensibly for the sake of others. Such behavior gnawed at the legitimacy of the protest and turned away sympathetic ears.

Granted, dissent is scarce in classrooms too. But this is not the fault of professors, many of whom seem to struggle to bring rigorous debate into the classroom. Rather, students stifle it on their own — afraid to overstep the imaginary bounds of acceptable opinion or to unintentionally offend a peer. They are afraid, it seems, of some illusory campus thought police. If such a thought seems hyperbolic, consider the dorm room whisperings between close friends recounting some idea that they did not want ridiculed or how pointless a roundabout discussion was.

Some of this aversion may stem from concern of microaggression or other unanticipated consequence of speech, which is fine. We should strive to be respectful and diplomatic in speech. But the solution is not to speak in some sort of coded, ambiguous language. Be thoughtful in speech; if you make a mistake and cause offense then apologize and learn from being called-out, do not just be silent in class.

I have tried to break this pattern of frozen speech; sometimes succeeding, sometimes giving in to the pressure. My freshman year, I tried to start a College Republicans chapter. Not out of any particular conviction, as I grew up in a liberal California household, but more out of curiosity and a desire to push students to engage more deeply in political discussions at a time where we neither had a Young Democratic Socialist of America (YDSA) chapter nor a College Democrats chapter. I did not want to stir the pot into a frenzy but rather to develop a pretense for intellectual opposition on campus, and I proudly denied outside requests to bring gross polemicists on campus. But the group floundered; few were interested in collaborating with us and far fewer wanted to join with us.

However, the memory lived on in a certain sense. I am still referred to as “the Republican” and have heard many insults because of this. I have since become friends with students shocked by the realization that they liked me. None of which is particularly surprising on this campus, but it should be shocking that students are discounted based on perception and not personal character or even belief. While the orthodoxy asserts that individuals are multifaceted, the groupthink often only recognizes one identity: the out-group.

Kudos to the few students or professors who act against the campus climate, often by running farther to the left. While I do not agree with the specific protests, I am happy to see them happening. Usually, posters that go up around campus or demonstrations that occur are trite to the point of absurdity. During Festival of Scholars, there are plans to join a national movement by holding a mass walkout as a statement against gun violence on the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. Perhaps, planners hope to shock the world by showing that LC students are generally in favor of gun restrictions and opposed to murder. Perhaps they prefer a symbolic gesture over interaction with student research on all types of issues. Like so many instances of LC activism, this appears to follow a trend rich in social capital rather than acting for meaningful change.

In addition, seldom have I heard more than an apathetic groan at the mention of our student government,  Associated Students of Lewis & Clark (ASLC). So few students engage with our student government despite its significant daily impact on campus life. It should be telling that there is rarely public attendance at Senate meetings, let alone a sufficient number of Senate candidates. The number of positions has been reduced twice in the past three years and still competition is minimal. But this sort of malaise seems to grow; each progressively older class is less involved. It should be striking that we did not have a contested ASLC presidential election, not even a rising senior looking for a resume boost. I cannot help but think that this lack of engagement is a result of broader trends on campus. Although ASLC is not particularly contentious, Senate debate is limited and few pieces of legislation garner dissent.How much have student needs or interests guided the ASLC?

While I do agree with some sort of “marketplace of ideas” approach to campus speech, I am not advocating for any radical shift in discourse. I just want students to start having meaningful conversations on political and social topics. I believe that the lack of substantive or vocalized disagreement shapes our environment. For all of the great moments at symposia, how many students can say they have actually been intellectually challenged by a speaker? For all of the kind members of our community, how many reprehensible people have had their actions ignored because they stuck to the script, joined the right clubs and had people to vouch for their “wokeness”?

The illusory nature of LC’s orthodoxy is certainly part of the problem. Usually, the latest talking points from John Oliver, the Atlantic or viral social media movement will suffice. We should think beyond what is in vogue and be excited by the prospect of challenging ourselves and our peers. Perhaps viewpoints will remain the same but at least they will be out of conviction. Beyond being important for our intellectual development, our discourse directly affects political and social campus life. We can do better and become thinkers, not just performers.

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