How vocal right-of-center students should be on their college campuses has remained a source of perennial debate on the right, as those within the movement attempt to gauge how much of the “burden” of disseminating political thought should be shouldered by the younger movers and shakers.
Recently, Brad Polumbo of the Washington Examiner penned a powerful article on the importance of right-of-center students allowing their voices to be heard within the university setting. Although Polumbo’s approach to political debate in college evinces a certain heroism, his piece misses the mark by labeling those more politically closeted students merely cowards. It’s more complicated than that.
Titled “Cowardice: Poll finds 70% of Republican students lie about their views to get grades,” Polumbo’s piece reports, “Among students that either strongly or weakly lean Republican, around 70% reported that they self-censor their views and take liberal positions on essays or in class out of fear their grades would suffer if they were honest about their positions.”
Polumbo offers sharp critique of the students who admit to self-censoring, citing his own experiences as an openly gay conservative and student journalist at the University of Massachusetts, which included social media harassment, threats to his life, and copious amounts of hate mail. Polumbo retorts bravely, “But guess what? It was not the end of the world. I was hardly victimized, and my life wasn’t negatively impacted in much of a meaningful way long-term.”
Then Polumbo takes right-of-center students to task for cowardice, asking if their beliefs are truly that “serious” if they aren’t willing to sacrifice a grade or social capital to voice them. Polumbo’s sort of battle cry for the openly conservative student reminded me of the internal struggle that often preys upon our minds.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Polumbo’s arguments. As someone who worked in academia for several years and currently studies at a law school in the DC area, I am no stranger to the liberal environment of which Polumbo speaks. And Polumbo brings up a valid consideration that I have voiced when someone poses the question, “Why was Trump’s win such a shock to large portions of the country?”
It was such a cataclysmic shock because, in some small way, there were many people, myself included, who didn’t go to battle around the college Harkness table particularly often. We didn’t frequently scream from the rooftops a full-throated defense of the pro-life stance or argue on the historic capacity of the Second Amendment to offer recourse for freed slaves to defend themselves at polling stations. We didn’t pop the ideological bubble to the extent we perhaps should have. My guess is that this hesitance to do so was shared by those outside the classroom.
It’s possible that if right-of-center students voice their opinions more often, it would normalize stances that otherwise are destined to be hijacked, reduced, and repackaged as evil or thoughtless. When you don’t take ownership over a particular opinion, you abdicate the chance to present it thoughtfully and coherently, leaving it instead to be ripped apart and resold as unfeeling and primitive. But in the same breath, it is worth examining what defines objectively good academic discourse.
Robust academic discourse relies on good faith actors be willing to engage in substantive dialogue where opinions are shared without fear of those opinions becoming an indictment on someone’s moral fiber. There are undoubtedly opinions that go beyond the “moral pale,” but as a society, we have lost sight of where the “moral pale” begins.
Unless the person is a self-avowed neo-Nazi, Soviet Communist, or of another evil ilk, you should not enter a discussion believing that every opinion the person holds is evil. If you do, you enter the conversation in bad faith, effectively stifling any hope of the dialogue being genuinely productive. This statement bears repeating for both sides, although given the general political lopsidedness of academia, I believe it’s a fair assessment that the right-of-center students face a greater uphill struggle at staving off accusations of moral bankruptcy.
The logical conclusion of Polumbo’s argument is that right-of-center students might as well fall on the sword and accept whatever reproach or ostracization they are subjected to, for if they do not, they are unserious about their opinions. I propose an alternative approach, one perhaps that is less binary and a little more cautious.
As a general rule, I encourage right-of-center students to voice their thoughts when they believe both they and their discussion partners have entered the conversation in good faith. To those who say such opportunities are too rare to be meaningful, my anecdotal experiences lead me to strongly disagree. I have met countless students and professors, many on the left, who have indicated willingness to engage thoughtfully and respectfully with my opinions.
Certainly I have encountered times throughout my career where I have felt it better to remain quiet, not because I am afraid to share my opinion, but because a quick calculation of the dynamic leads me to believe the conversation won’t be productive. This type of mental exercise requires brutal honesty, for it can lead to the slippery slope of cowardice that Polumbo pointed out. But I encourage students to choose their battles. More than anything, it’s about entering the conversation, not necessarily “winning” it.
Conservative pundit and Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Wire Ben Shapiro has presented an alternative approach for college students. According to Shapiro, the best path forward for right-of-center students involves toeing the liberal line and then using their academic credentials to assume positions of power later. Shapiro’s approach, while arguably the subject of Polumbo’s rebuke, carries some merit.
To say that accruing social capital or getting a particular grade is irrelevant for the greater conservative cause is short-sighted. Entering a public fight may lead some to turn away from you when they otherwise might have listened. Getting several Bs may put a very real damper on your chances at graduate school. And if you’re genuinely concerned about liberal bias in academia, one way to improve the situation is to enter academia yourself – something you will be foreclosed from doing without the proper credentials.
As my friend Josh Hammer wrote in The Daily Wire a few years ago, every movement needs bomb throwers and bomb diffusers. There is no shame in being a diffuser – in fact, more than ever, there is a genuine need for such people. There is also no shame in waiting to voice your opinions until you arrive at a position where you believe your opinions may carry actual impact.
I commend Brad for being a bomb thrower, but not everyone is willing nor comfortable doing so. Instead of shaming those individuals or accusing them of lacking seriousness, perhaps we recognize the potential success to be had in a diversity of approaches. The appropriateness of engaging can be case-by-case decision, one that weighs the ability of the conversation to be an ultimately productive one. At this point in history, the world of politics may feel like an absolute binary, but our approach to it doesn’t have to be.
Erielle Davidson is a Staff Writer at the Federalist and a law student at Georgetown University Law Center. She previously was an economic research assistant at the Hoover Institution and a Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute. She graduated from Middlebury College with a B.A in Russian, with a focus on Eastern European security issues. Find her on Twitter at @politicalelle.