When Students Become Warriors: Rethinking Our Role in the National Battle

My dad winces bodily when ideas bother him.  His eyes crinkle and the skepticism travels down his crow’s feet, tightening the corners of his mouth. It’s happening now as I watch him in the rear-view mirror, his tension radiating to press against the lull of the highway as I wait, expectant.  Although it feels longer, it’s been about fifteen seconds since I told him I like the idea of socialism.

It’s 2016.  I’m a twenty-one-year-old in community college with about as much tact as a steamroller, but my question isn’t meant to troll.  A couple weeks prior, I finished Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto and Noam Chomsky’s Failed States for a class on international politics and my professor – a proudly socialist, balding 35-year-old with an abiding love of Cuba – is starting to make sense.  The concept of hegemony and the exploitative power behind a nation I’ve never felt particularly connected to seems self-explanatory alongside a deep need for class equality.  I don’t need confirmation, but I raise the topic anyway, hoping for some sign that my dad understands my ideological independence (I envision this as something between a nod and a thoughtful, “Go on”).

What I get is a motley of Hobbes, Locke, and the Bible on human nature hurled at me for about three minutes.  My dad may not be yelling, but he’s a little breathless; when I start to argue back, it’s like trying to flag down a NASCAR driver mid-heat.  By the time he’s finished, we’re both glaring into our respective distances, me wishing for nothing else than to call up my professor and let him prove me right.  For the first time since high school, there’s a chasm between us – me and this upbeat guy who I respect more than anyone. I clam up about politics for the better part of a year, deciding it’s better to avoid arguing with my dad altogether than to force-feed him the virtues of socialism.

Fast forward three years and I’m sitting in a deep-carpeted room surrounded by graduate students, listening as a student-faculty panel describes the state of academic freedom at the University of Michigan.  Following campus uproar over the university’s punishment of Prof. Cheney-Lippold (the second UM professor to refuse to write a recommendation letter for a student hoping to study abroad in Israel), the impromptu meeting functions as a talk-back to the recently appointed advisory board on the subject – a move many faculty members find disturbing.  Visually, I fit in nicely – I’m one of many beanie-wearers and happen to be sitting next to the Michigan Daily reporter, whose busy typing makes me feel less conscientious as I scribble notes.  But as the PhD student at the podium reads her speech in a tight, combustible voice, familiar uncertainty pinches the corners of my eyes. “This is not about whether John and Lucy speak,” she says, arguing the university’s ignorance of the “differences in power” between minorities and their white counterparts.  “It’s about whether non-Europeans [are allowed to] think.”

I lean back in my chair, fighting the reflex that purses my mouth in that familiar, pained not-smile. Torn between frustration and a vague sense of guilt, I write rigidly in my notebook what I know all too well: Power of radicalization breeds opposing radicalism.

Internet slang for a liberal turned right-winger is “red-pilled” – a reference to the iconic moment in the 1999 film The Matrix when Morpheus gives Neo a choice between living a lie and seeing “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”  Back when computers were the size of toaster ovens, the idea that anyone could spend their lives trapped in a false reality was an enticing piece of science fiction, triggering our worst fears of domination by technocracy.  Applied to politics, the concept still holds that sci-fi appeal: instead of a few altered opinions, defecting from one side is as life-changing as a complete reboot.

The first time I used the term for myself was at another university panel in February of 2018, though this one was captured live as Joshua Johnson’s “1A,” a talk-radio offshoot of NPR.  Convened to discuss campus protest and free speech, the panel hosted two U of M faculty and two students, each of whom commented on recent activism against Charles Murray (chair of cultural studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author best known for the controversial book The Bell Curve) and white supremacist Richard Spencer’s impending visit to campus. I sat through the beginning of the event in rapt attention, but spaced out for the next two hours as I imagined out-arguing Anti-Fascist representative Maximillian Alvarez in a no-holds-barred debate.  I later told a Michigan Daily reporter that, like conservative student representative Jesse Arm, I also felt my views “weren’t necessarily welcomed” in the classroom. “I was actually recently red-pilled,” I added, then spent the rest of the evening berating myself for how contrived that sounded.  The label still felt too decisive, too constricting to apply to my political realignment.

I’d like to say it was argument alone that convinced me that socialism isn’t a preferable economic ideology to capitalism.  There were times when I was fully engaged with the rhetoric, fact-checking claims that didn’t jive with what I’d been taught, but most of what I did was click through viral YouTube videos of the professors, political commentators, journalists, and other professionals calling themselves the “Intellectual Dark Web” (another name that could’ve come straight from The Matrix).  After my sister sent me a clip of Jordan Peterson “debunking” white privilege, I went on to hear Ben Shapiro explain the difference between positive and negative rights, Larry Elder school Dave Rubin on the myth of systemic racism, and Christina Hoff Sommers describe the shortcomings of new age feminism.  I learned about the inverse rebellion of college students who are, in their own words, fighting to have their voices heard on liberal campuses, as well as the 400,000-plus members of the #WalkAway campaign who’ve experienced red-pill moments similar to my own.  

Over the next few months, the internet became my ideological rabbit hole – an endlessly informative spiral of conservative personalities who were part of my daily routine.  After all, I figured that the more information I had, the more impervious my ideas would be. Yet the refrain that conservatives are underrepresented, fact-based free-thinkers plagued by blacklisting leftists soon tinted the lens through which I understood all of campus politics.  I began to resent the university I’d once considered free, wondering what final straw would turn Michigan students into a screaming mob worthy of YouTube’s “triggered liberals” compilations.

In October of 2018, the University of Michigan Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) hosted a Halloween event featuring Steven Crowder, a 31-year-old YouTube star who boasts one of the largest conservative talk show-podcast hybrids on the platform.  Although Crowder engages in political commentary and comedy of all varieties, his standup – attended by around 1,300 screaming fans – ranged from an Ann-Arbor-inspired music video to jokes about a transgender cowboy. Although I cheered along with everyone else, I couldn’t get over how uncomfortable it was to see the YouTuber live. Compiled, the anti-PC jokes that were normally laughable behind a computer screen now made me cringe.  During a final hour of Q&A, the comedian encouraged his audience to be “happy warriors” in the classroom, explaining that conservative students have no excuse to withhold their ideas. “You’ve all been punched in the face,” he said, pacing the stage in a vest, ranger panties, and chaps. “You’re in the fight whether you want it or not, so start acting like it, ‘cause there’s no way around it!” He later ended the show with an exhortation to “speak the truth as often and as loudly as you can,” exiting the stage to a roar that wouldn’t have been out of place at Woodstock (the livestream had 400,000 views).

I left the event flustered that Crowder seemed so uncomfortably biased up close.  Was this what it meant to be politically active on campus: a warrior for either social justice or truth, mobilized by rebellion?  If there was one reason I was attracted to conservative ideas, it was because I’d seen the Left’s resistance to controversial discussions about race, gender, economics, and science.  The new moral code of political correctness stifles dissent through supposed reeducation, exemplified in the pervasive shutdown of conservative speakers. But the idea that joining a side required taking up political arms felt like an underhanded recruitment method.  After all, why call cross-partisan debate a “fight” rather than a discussion? What about openness and attentiveness, the hallmarks of anyone ready to learn?   

It’s been a few months since I subscribed to the College Republicans’ email list in a sudden burst of party loyalty.  When I start questioning my allegiance, I sign up to table with them, deciding the bitter cold is the least of my worries if I can have a few minutes of clarifying discussion.  While encouraging people to sign thank-you cards for distribution at the veterans hospital, I learn that the club president, Dylan, is a New Yorker with a vigorous handshake and an accent that’s constantly mislabeled (“People think I’m from either New York, New Jersey, or Chicago”) and that Austin, the club videographer, will do pretty much anything for a cool shot (“Can I get someone to drive by on the Bird?  I want a slow-mo of our sign”). Contrary to my expectations, we face no harassment and hear nothing more offensive than the colorful lyrics of the latest Drake album. Yet when I ask Dylan how much the Republicans interact with the College Dems, he shakes his head. “We ask. We tried to put together a statement with them after the Pittsburgh shooting, but no response. They’re just not interested.” He shrugs, his smile splitting a sea of freckles.  “But we keep trying. I’m an optimistic guy.”

Convinced I’ve overestimated the campus political divide, I join the club again a couple days later at an event titled “An Immigration Discussion” – a lecture with Executive Director of Immigration Studies Mark Krikorian on “who we let in.”  Halfway through the talk, six of the twenty students in the dingy classroom stand up and take turns shouting pieces of Krikorian’s rhetoric back at him, including comments about Haiti’s not having been “colonized long enough” and that Mexico’s “weakness and backwardness has been deeply harmful to the United States.”  I don’t know it at the time, but Krikorian’s original invitation to speak at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute had already been chastised by Prof. William Lopez, who wrote that the university is “providing a platform to a man who is directly contributing to the current immigration enforcement climate.”  It’s Lopez’s article the students quote – a series of tweets and public comments that, without context, paint Krikorian as deeply insensitive to Latino immigrants.

Sitting stiffly in my chair, entranced by both the protestors’ language and Krikorian’s shuffling helplessness, I can’t help but think how differently the interaction would look on video – the tiny room with its anemic fluorescent lights, the smattering of students and one middle-aged couple who somehow managed to find their way to the third floor of this deserted building.  Behind a conservative lens, it seems like an oversensitive reaction to a sparsely-attended lecture.  But while I can’t condone the strategy of shouting down a speaker instead of asking him tough questions, I also can’t deny that their words add gravity to the discussion – a gravity that vanishes behind the comforting barrier of a screen.

When college students first began protesting in earnest in the early ‘60s, both university administrators and the public saw it as pure insurrection.  The concept of student activism, particularly against academic institutions, seemed outside common rationale. This prompted Berkley administrators to declare “a state of emergency” and the University of Wisconsin to call in the National Guard.  However, given that an all-time high of 8.5% of freshmen said there’s a “very good chance” they’ll participate in public protest, and that there’s been an uptick in campus protests over the past couple of years, it’s clear that activism is now a mainstay of university life.  Since I began attending Michigan, the biggest uprising has been the 2017 #StopSpencer campaign, comprised of a student-prompted series of teach-ins, protests, and class walkouts that gained national attention and, arguably, the white supremacist’s retreat.  Now more than ever, students have a dramatic influence on university ideology and leadership.

While I can tell myself I see beyond the matrix of social media, viral videos were (and still are) my gateway drug. Is it so hard, then, to understand why many students believe argument alone simply isn’t enough – that perhaps, outside of viral videos, shouting and spectacle is the only way to be heard?

In November 2015, after a week-long hunger strike and the threat of a football team boycott, University of Missouri student group “Concerned Students 1950” succeeded in making Tom Wolfe step down as university president – a watershed moment reflecting their dissatisfaction with how he’d handled several racist incidents on campus.  In his short resignation speech, Wolfe expressed a deep regret at both his inaction and the series of protests, saying that this was “not – I repeat not – the way change should come about.” As he looked out at the crowd of cameras and faculty, his voice wavered, suggesting tears. Outside, a field of students clapped as Jonathan Butler, one of the eleven original protest organizers and leader of the hunger strike, promised that this was “only the beginning” of the changes they hoped to bring to the University of Missouri system.

Within Wolfe’s sentiment is the understanding that common decency demands an argument rather than shouting match, a teach-out rather than a sit-in.  Yet in the political game, a field of hungry student activists sleeping in tents and holding late-night pep talks gets more attention than a friendly debate.  Bravado surpasses decency for effectiveness, standing for deeply ingrained political beliefs and the sentiment of a generation that knows its viewership by the subscriber.  While I can tell myself I see beyond the matrix of social media, viral videos were (and still are) my gateway drug. Is it so hard, then, to understand why many students believe argument alone simply isn’t enough – that perhaps, outside of viral videos, shouting and spectacle is the only way to be heard?

“It’s a proxy war, absolutely…  And I don’t know why more people can’t step back and just see the humor in it.”

I’m sitting with Dr. Angela Dillard, professor and Associate Dean of Education in Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, in a small coffee shop off campus.  Although I began the discussion with a trembling handshake, Dr. Dillard exudes the sort of understanding that can only come from someone who’s spent most of her life studying people she doesn’t agree with – namely, conservatives.  But it’s a game-faced disagreement, tinged with respect. Even as I lean forward to hear her over the whine of an espresso machine, she reconsiders her characterization of the campus environment post the 2016 election, taking a moment to rephrase.  “OK, so I get – some people were really upset and I don’t want to make fun of it completely, but part of it was, you know, here was [conservative students’] chance to bash back… And you get it, right, that you’re crafting these narratives for public consumption, and that that is, in itself, a kind of ideological warfare.”  She grins, eyes twinkling behind her glasses. “And it’s not without its comic moments.”

Author of the prescient book Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Now?: Multicultural Conservatism in America, Dr. Dillard is a firm believer in political expression on campus.  I first saw her speak last semester at a peer tutor summit, and her heartfelt attempt to understand both sides of the debate deeply impressed me.  I quickly learned that she’s often called upon to represent a more conservative viewpoint (her most recent public lecture was titled “Civil Rights Conservatism and the Ironies of Monumental History”) and has herself been protested.  And yet, as we talk, she emphasizes that “most of what’s going on college campuses is interesting and vibrant and healthy” and that, if anything, my generation is “enormously open and flexible about ideas that [we] don’t agree with.”  Rather than being afraid of new opinions, it’s our unwillingness to tolerate the “bullying” of other groups that makes us “inclined to restrict free speech.”

My eyebrows fly up involuntarily.  “But when you have someone like, I don’t know…for example, Steven Crowder was just here not too long ago.  Is he a bully?” I move on quickly, not sure if I want the question answered. “The decision of who is a bully and who isn’t is kind of in play here.”

“I think part of the problem is that some people perceive Trump as a bully,” she answers.  “In fact, some people woke up [after the election] and were like, ‘How did we elect an internet troll?’ you know?  How does that happen? And why wasn’t some of his behavior a deal-breaker for so many people?”

We both resist characterizing bullies completely and I don’t press further, naively missing the chance to question when the label becomes a way to disenfranchise opposing ideas rather than challenge their sincerity.  The countless YouTube videos of students protesting outside campus buildings, the seemingly pointless cries of “Reagan’s dead” at Ben Shapiro’s speech at Ohio State – is this not bullying? Then again, what about the innumerable videos of Shapiro “OWNING,” “ROASTING,” and “DESTROYING” progressive opponents?

“So many of the letters I get start with ‘I’m outraged,’” Dr. Dillard says, leaning forward in her chair.  “And so, some days you look back and nobody on this campus is happy. Nobody’s happy and nobody feels included, nobody feels welcome, nobody feels fully respected anywhere…  There’s no group – that constitutes itself as a group – that isn’t going to use the language of outrage and marginalization. And so, you have an environment where everybody’s using, often, the exact same language.”  She reaches for the right words. “It’s just, I mean, I think there’s something really complex about that. I think it has to do with narrative itself and kind of the narrative in which you make claims… The way that these fights that happen…  Some of it is really serious, and a lot of it is really performative. That’s how you have to argue to get, kind of…and it’s literally from all sides simultaneously.”

During my research, I try to adhere as much as possible to a student perspective.  I send out a flock of emails to everyone from the College Dems to single-issue activist groups, even attempting to contact Maximillian at the Campus Anti-Fascist Network.  Unfortunately, class midterms seem to be keeping most people busy, and I’m beyond grateful when some friends connect me to Jacob Chludzinski, president of the conservative group Young Americans for Freedom, and Dems board member and co-founder of the supportive network “Being Not-Rich at UM” Griffin St. Onge.  We meet separately in separate coffee shops, finding commonality in our enjoyment of intense discussion.

“There have been student orgs that try to bring, you know, the right and the left together,” Griffin says, her blue eyes intensely sincere.  She’s already explained that as a “middle-class white girl,” her experience of “power” is different than that of minority students, which she considers a critical aspect of the political divide.  “Recently, it’s just not something that has worked out very well.”

“I don’t think either group really reaches out,” Jacob says, voice stale from organizing last night’s speaking event with Daily Wire journalist Michael Knowles.  He notes how small the community is, how the groups may “chat” in passing. “YAF does a lot of debates…but in regards to our roles on campus, at least at my job in YAF, we’ve never really crossed the aisle and stuff.  But we chat. For the most part, it’s a civil community.”

“It would be easier if there weren’t certain things that I think aren’t up for debate,” Griffin says hesitantly, leaning forward in her chair.  “I think that’s where, like…you know, it’s in terms of the way we characterize the first amendment of what free speech is…and not wanting to compromise the safety and the identities of marginalized people.  And I can’t come to the table with someone on that.”

“I don’t think it’s as bad as some people make it out to be,” Jacob says, netting his fingers.  “And I don’t know if this is because the groups I’m a part of are, you know, very pro discussion…  I think for the most part, people can have civil discussions, but the thing is with media, what gets the most views is the people who talk the most.”

Just as the assumption of moral superiority often prevents liberals from tackling certain issues, my assumption that having a cadre of intelligent speakers on “my side” made me right kept me from continuing to test my ideas.  Instead of a rebel, I’d become a warrior toeing the party line; when I told people I was listening, I meant I knew exactly what they were going to say.

When I’m finally able to sit down with my recorder and laptop, I play the interviews back-to-back, struck by Griffin and Jacob’s wisdom and conviction.  Taken alone, they’re both convincing, solid representatives of their respective movements – poster children for the articulate students Dr. Dillard hopes to see lining up for diplomas.  But when I ask whether they agree with the Associate Dean’s bully theory, I hit pause, taking a moment to interweave their voices and imagine what a conversation between them might have looked like.  How might Jacob have responded to Griffin’s argument that while “the bully type gets the best press…the more insidious things are the things people try to hide in peer-reviewed articles and a nice suit”?  Would Griffin have rankled at Jacob’s suggestion that people like Ben Shapiro are “not really bullying,” perhaps referencing the Michigan Daily editor who called Crowder’s stand up “one of the most terrifying events of [her] life”?

I don’t want to misjudge the stakes of these conversations.  Maybe it’s cold to think such topics can be discussed calmly as if lives weren’t, to some degree, on the line.  Maybe the battle is too serious to drop for a discussion that’s unlikely to end with anyone changing their minds.  But when I re-watch ANTIFA’s Maximillian describe “conservative victimization” at the 1A panel – a moment I must have missed in the rush to tweet a rebuttal – I realize how much more I could’ve learned if I’d been less set on remaining loyal to my new label.  “I love a good debate,” the activist says emphatically, adjusting his purple beanie. “I think there’s still plenty of room for good, open, productive debate between right and left on our campuses, but I think it’s being hindered, more than anything else, by this kind of trolling tactic from people who just want to piss people off and play the victim.”

Although I’d never shout the guy down (and couldn’t hold a candle to his intellect), I did internally drown Maximillian out by dismissing his views as extreme.  Just as the assumption of moral superiority often prevents liberals from tackling certain issues, my assumption that having a cadre of intelligent speakers on “my side” made me right kept me from continuing to test my ideas.  Instead of a rebel, I’d become a warrior toeing the party line; when I told people I was listening, I meant I knew exactly what they were going to say.

Kate’s voice is cheery over the phone, which bleeps and fades in and out with the crappy recording app I downloaded.  “Yeah, I’m actually at the vet waiting to pick up my cat.”

I’ve had such a difficult time arranging a meeting with the BAMN (a reference to “By Any Means Necessary,” which makes up the tail end of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality) coordinator that I wait a second before replying, hoping it’s not a reason to postpone the call.  “Your cat? Is everything OK?”

“Oh, sure,” Kate says.  I’ve already asked if I can record, but I’m thankful later that I decided to take notes too.  Between spates of static, my recording is nothing but the peaked echo of my own voice.

Kate tells me that she was a freshman in 1999 when she first joined BAMN – an activist group built on the bones of the Civil Rights Movement.  Formed in response to UCLA regents’ decision to ban affirmative action in 1995, its members continue to push a strong, left-wing agenda, particularly on immigration policy.  “There can be a lot of support for something and you don’t necessarily know it until it’s active,” Kate says. “What we’ve seen from the Civil Rights Movement and the Immigration Rights Movement, when people are out protesting, people think: why is this so important?  It really disrupts business as usual.”

Kate also notes that it’s “definitely not a coincidence” that universities are focal points for protestors, since what happens on larger campuses does have a national effect.  “So many people go to U of M because they want to be a leader,” she says. For organizations like BAMN, this is a direct line to the future of American politics.

I ask Kate about the benefits of social media and whether the platforms enable misconceptions to spread.  “There’s definitely a bit of advantage to [them],” she agrees, calling the websites “a tool to blast things far and wide.” “There was this racist guy who came up to our van last semester who said ‘All immigrants should be deported or killed.’  When he came back, we were ready with a camera [and] within five hours, he couldn’t show his face on campus.”

For all its perks, one disadvantage of social media, she admits, is the lack of face-to-face interaction.  “When I first started organizing, you could make phone calls and make a conversation…now there’s no real conversation, just texting.”  Cameras, she mentions, also fail to capture the coordinated preparation that makes BAMN a movement rather than a collection of dissidents.  “In our meetings, what we try to do is read something that is either from our written political statements from now or some historical [ones from] MLK, Frederick Douglass…”  She gives a few examples, saying that the group decides how best to apply aspects of these historical models to their own movement. “Right now, what’s going on at the border is like what King’s movement was doing in Thelma and in Birmingham, just continuing to fight – to create such a national…”  She pauses, and I imagine her staring at a pale waiting room wall, immersing herself in the past. “To wake people up. That’s how you change the laws, the policies and stuff.”

I’m struck by how thorough the movement is and how much its foundation of loyalty, echoes conservatism.  This reliance on certain figures and voices – is it so far away from how I’d learned to frame the partisan debate?  Even if we differ on everything from abortion to free speech, are we really at war?

Like Jacob and Griffin, I ask Kate about Dr. Dillard’s assessment of certain speakers as “bullies,” and her response is enthusiastic.  The idea is well put, she feels, since with “somebody like Richard Spencer that’s tried to speak at different campuses, they’re not there to debate ideas…  They’re actually there to recruit people for their movements.” I get a flash of Morpheus presenting the pills to Neo – the ultimate binary choice. Wake up or stay asleep.  See the world as it is or remain dreaming of what it should be. Yet for all its symbolic importance, the pill doesn’t actually do anything. In the next scene, it’s a high-level brain hack that “unplugs” Neo, allowing him to open his atrophied eyes for the first time.

I hesitate.  “Then who decides who’s a bully and who isn’t?”

There’s a muffled moment as Kate lowers the phone, answering someone in the veterinary office.  I smile inwardly at the irony – that at perhaps the most important question of the interview, she’s going to have to cut me off.  But through the fuzzy connection, I sense her clutching the phone between her ear and shoulder, her hands busy as she summarizes the mindset continuing to drive students to political warriorhood.  

“I guess the short way of saying it is that the movement decides…  That’s how one side wins and the other side loses, in the end.”

Both Dr. Dillard and Jacob recommended the student organization WeListen to me as a place for student discussion.  Having recognized that I’m too comfortable in my conservative echo chamber, I’m hoping it’s a haven for the diverse ideologies I’ve been missing – a model for what challenging discussion should be.  Tonight’s topic is “Environmental Policy,” but I know the graduate founders Gabriel Lerner and Sonia Thosar have hosted discussions about issues as divisive as immigration and the midterms results; after all, the org’s stated purpose is to “bridge the political divide” between conservatives and liberals, starting in the classroom.

Unfortunately, I’m placed in a group that’s less than divided.  After WeListen’s bipartisan board members split up the attendees, we’re instructed to break the ice and “get to know each other” before being presented with some baseline facts: previous U.S. and international environmental policy and details about each party’s position on the subject.  After covering a few ground rules, we’re released to talk over the questions printed on our handouts, which also list our new knowledge for easy reference.

Two of my group-mates are WeListen veterans who give the org a mildly positive rating, though both say they wish the discussions covered more contentious subjects.  They note that half of the students here are getting extra credit for a class; the people most passionate about the discussion topics don’t typically come.

After introductions, our group shares a little about how we came to our opinions about the environment.  Renee outlines her experience with Lyme disease – which she wouldn’t have gotten, she suggests, if global warming hadn’t expanded tick habitats.  Avery describes her personal battle to reduce her carbon footprint, despite the fact that she’s “not in a place right now where being vegan is really possible.”  Others express frustration at classmates’ wastefulness and the incongruity of our notes being printed on fancy paper. “You know, they could have just emailed these to us,” says Paris, a freshman with an open, honest face.

Avery leans in excitedly, tapping the table for emphasis.  “And the thing is? They do.”

After admitting my lack of knowledge, I participate for a fast-paced hour as we discuss everything from the EU’s straw ban to “The Handmaid’s Tale” without ever reaching a clear disagreement.  When the leaders end the event with questions about what we’ve learned, I’m surprised to hear that the rest of the room picked up a lot of random facts they intend to research further, with only a few saying their perspectives were challenged.  I feel cheated; after all, I’d come for a collision of minds, a heated exchange between the Green and the unconvinced. Instead, what I got was a mix of group therapy and an average classroom conversation.

On the walk to work afterwards, I’m still wondering what’s so remarkable about a few policy questions, especially when the goal is expression rather than truth.  But then again, what did I expect a well-meaning discussion to look like – a gauntlet for the undecided? A battle? Perhaps simply, as one friend put it, “people getting salty”?

Clearly, I still haven’t shaken the subconscious belief that intense discussion is a combative performance rather than two individuals – not extremes, but individuals – presenting their opinions for study.  The world of YouTube debates instructed me to arm myself with facts and arguments, but WeListen didn’t offer a battlefield. Instead, the art of conversation demanded that I be a student first and a conservative second, regardless of how strongly I felt about a subject.  In the end, whether I walked away encouraged or upset, the only one responsible for my opinions was me.

It’s no wonder this method of exchange doesn’t appeal to warriors.  To spend an evening reasoning with people who have varying degrees of investment in a topic, most of whom are looking to learn rather than join a movement, seems like a waste of time.  Yet when all argument is reduced to recruitment, the university is nothing but a series of uprisings, each of which prepares students to fight for an ideology on the grounds of their own rightness.  The freedom to be wrong, to develop an idea rather than claim an ideology – this is the essence of growth. To me, that’s worth setting aside my weapons for a while.

    

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