Few things are more venerated on an academic campus than debate. Debate is the lifeblood of a healthy academic establishment. It allows for a free flow of ideas between professor and student, student and administration, left and right, and majority and minority. It allows people to listen and respond to (ideally) clearly articulated concepts and to decide for themselves what they think about them.
These debates, as emotional as they may get at times, are predicated on two things. The first is a respect for facts and ideas, an acknowledgment that debate is useless if everyone yells but nobody listens. The second is the ability to talk about sensitive issues with understanding from both sides. This means respect and open-mindedness from the majority, but also a responsibility from the minority to not employ moral blackmail. If no one can say what they think for fear of judgment, then our discourse, one of the most important aspects of our school, ceases to exist.
The controversy this past week with the “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” shows the dangers of debate gone bad. However poorly conceived the format of the bake sale was, its intentions were good. The Cardinal Conservatives find Affirmative Action as presently conceived to be an ineffective policy that does not achieve its goals of reducing racial polarization and increasing opportunities for minorities. I spoke with a member of the Cardinal Conservatives and was quite impressed with the depth and nuance of her position. This was not bumper sticker opposition—these people are serious.
The responses from both the administration and pro-Affirmative Action groups were disappointing. They could have made many sound and logical arguments for maintaining Affirmative Action as presently constituted, arguments that could have fueled an interesting and healthy debate for our school.
Instead, campus groups chose to play right into the stereotype of liberal political discourse. They demonized both the event and the group, calling them racist and politically incorrect, instead of recognizing the potential merits of their position. They accused them of harboring impure intentions, and claimed they wanted to restrict opportunities for minority advancement. They attacked the messenger so they did not have to deal with the message. They poisoned the well to the point where an adult debate about this topic is no longer possible.
When this happens, what are people supposed to do? How can someone argue against Affirmative Action if they are afraid that they will be accused of being racist? How can someone voice an opinion if they are afraid that they will be stigmatized because of it? When people create such an inhospitable environment for debate, it is a sign that they don’t think their ideas hold water, or are afraid to find out one way or another.
It is always easier to demonize the other side than beat them fair and square. All of the signs and editorials by Affirmative Action supporters have focused on the nature of the bake sale itself. Not one of them has tried to make the present policy stand up on its own merits. Not one. Everything has been about “preserving minority rights,” or how crass and ill-conceived the bake sale was.
No one bothered to ask the Cardinal Conservatives what they actually thought, since they were too busy telling them how their demonstration was offensive. They have even played fast and loose with the facts— for example, one group hung a sign in Usdan that said that Wesleyan’s Office of Admissions does not have an Affirmative Action policy. This is patently false. There actually is an Office of Affirmative Action at this school, and anyone who has read The Gatekeepers knows that your background can and does matter in the admission process to this, or any other, school.
Events like the recent bake sale, chances to confront an important, controversial issue head-on, do not come frequently. Therefore, it is unfortunate that student groups botched this opportunity, and proved that they would rather demonize the other side than have a mature debate. Thanks to them, we may not ever get the chance again anytime soon.
Blinderman is a member of the class of 2014.