Our Campus Culture: Self-Righteousness
When was the last time you engaged in a real debate at Skidmore about politics or social change? When was the last time you heard a politically conservative comment on campus? For most of us, the answer to both questions is probably never.
It is hardly surprising that most Skidmore students are liberal, but the absence of debate on campus cannot be fully attributed to the dearth of conservatives in our community. Political debate is rare because our student body is hostile to the exchange of ideas, incredulous at the notion that liberal opinions do not constitute universal truths. If you deviate from the Skidmore consensus, you will be shamed and you had better be sorry. “Skidmore students live in a Soviet system in which the vast majority are terrified of saying the wrong thing in class or on campus and being stigmatized to Social Siberia,” says one anonymous professor. Our campus political culture is one of self-righteousness, and we should not be proud.
In debating politics and society at Skidmore, you do not have to explain why your argument is right when few are willing to challenge it. Simplistic answers to difficult questions raised in class are met with vigorous nods from classmates rather than with beckons to explain what you mean. We do not demand the intellectual best from one another when we accept quips such as “because of capitalism,” “because of white privilege,” “because of colonialism,” or “because of the patriarchy” as sufficient answers. Politics is ineffably complex, but talking points serve as an easy shortcut to social acceptance among peers who demand progressive piety. Our school motto tells us that “creative thought matters,” but it would help our student body to realize that critical thought matters more.
To the Skidmore Left, the progressive mindset is the only acceptable one. Instead of engaging with contrasting points of view, students resort to ad hominem attacks on anyone who steps outside of the strict boundaries set for campus discussions. Students who question the efficacy of protest tactics embraced by Black Lives Matter are written off as morally deficient. Students who share that they might not oppose fracking are dismissed as ignorant. Students who hint that they have qualms with raising the federal minimum wage are defiled as hostile to the poor. The Skidmore Left makes few efforts to grapple with the merits of ideas; its disciples substitute smug tirades for evidence-based arguments, attacking the integrity of well-meaning individuals rather than contending with the substance of their ideas. "At Skidmore, intentions don't matter; words do," laments one anonymous senior.
Ideological minorities at Skidmore find few venues to voice their perspectives. “I found that admitting to being a Republican all of a sudden made me a bad person, or selfish, or insensitive to social issues,” says freshman Julia Budsey in explaining how her classroom experiences led her to revive the Skidmore Republicans club this year. But even when the College Democrats and the College Republicans came together to host a well-attended political dialogue last week, the meeting degenerated into the usual exchange of progressive takes on morality—perspectives students are expected to embrace if they hope to be liked by their classmates. Unsurprisingly, most of the College Republicans sat in silence.
Each time the College Republicans club re-emerges on campus, members of our community openly lament its quiet resurgence. Some students have made it clear that the club should not be tolerated, viewing membership as an explicit endorsement of Trumpian populism. To the Skidmore Left, arguing that all Republicans are bigots until proven non-bigots is perfectly justified. How much does this approach differ from the logic employed by those who argue that all Muslims can be presumed sympathizers to the Islamic State until they vocally condemn acts of terror committed by radicals?
A tendency to vilify individuals rather than to constructively critique ideas makes many Skidmore students ill prepared for life after college. Even the liberals on our campus who attempt to poke holes in the Skidmore consensus are denigrated for undermining the causes they too support. If you oppose the creation of a social justice center on campus, you are branded as hostile to social change. Nobody considers that you could be skeptical about the benefits of utilizing our school’s resources to fund such a center. If you question trigger warnings, you are censured for being unsympathetic to victims of sexual assault. Nobody admits that a practice that is honorable in theory could be problematic in practice.
What the Skidmore Left seems to ignore is this: if someone disagrees with your methods for achieving social change, it does not mean they are hostile to your goals.
The self-righteous tendency to elevate opinions as universal truths is hardly unique to the Skidmore Left. On college campuses throughout the country, if you cannot communicate through the pre-approved language of progressive student activists, your words will trigger someone. And if you do not understand why privileged students at Yale sobbed about Halloween costumes and took down the professor who softly suggested they were fighting the wrong battle, you do not deserve respect. “The 24/7 activist mode is part of the problem,” says Associate Professor of Political Science Flagg Taylor. “College should be a time when one becomes familiar with a broad range of philosophical and political opinion. But this isn’t possible if one is certain one has the answers and that those answers simply require full implementation. Being introduced to the full range of opinion requires a certain intellectual detachment, calm, and humility—a manner of being that is all too rare on campus these days.”
While the political culture we have each played a role in enabling at Skidmore is most harmful to those with dissenting points of view, it is damaging to all of us in the long run—and counterproductive for efforts to achieve the progressive policy goals many students hold.
After graduation, Skidmore students will have to justify their beliefs to people who will be far less sympathetic to their views than the most conservative members of our college community have ever been. “The Skidmore political consensus is intellectually lazy and dangerous. The ‘acceptable’ positions on Skidmore's campus are definitely not a majority and often not even a plurality view in the American public,” says Assistant Professor of Political Science Chris Mann. “Discussing and even arguing a wider range of opinions about politics and society doesn't mean people should change their mind. But they need to open their mind. If for no other reason than being effective advocates for the important values reflected in the Skidmore consensus requires understanding where other folks are coming from.”
Rather than silencing debate, the Skidmore Left must grapple with the reality that its way of thinking is not the only legitimate way. If you cannot learn to contend with contrasting points of view, it is likely that your Skidmore years will set you up for profound disappointment in the paths you will pursue.
When you leave this campus, you will not be able to file a bias incident report if someone has written “Make America Great Again” on a surface you happen to walk by. And you will not be able to demand a safe space to shield you from the prevalence of opinions that are not your own. Instead, you will eventually have to acknowledge that even if you find someone’s opinions offensive, you cannot change their mind by yelling at them what not to think; you can only hope to persuade them that they could be wrong by understanding what it is they believe in the first place. I hope my fellow students are up for the challenge.