I would like to note that this article was submitted to The Campus a couple of weeks ago, but was not published because of the Murray debacle. Since then, some of the points I make have been raised. The article is still relevant, however, as it highlights the points in another context and proposes a step towards improving acceptance and unity on campus.
When explaining the JusTalks program to the Freshman class, organizer Professor Jonathan Miller-Lane said, “One of the fundamental goals of a liberal arts education is to learn how to disagree well for the purpose of understanding multiple viewpoints.” Middlebury literally puts the “liberal” in liberal arts college, with the vast majority of the student population comprised of politically and socially liberal persons. This majority, however, fails to truly embody what it means to be “liberal” – i.e., open-minded. JusTalks, an eight hour day where students engage in conversations about identity, exemplifies this notion. Contrary to Miller-Lane’s words, the JusTalks session I attended was intolerant of multiple views. I invite you to consider a new perspective – one from a conservative lens.
For many self-proclaimed liberals who pride themselves on openness and tolerance, it is a shame how the readily exclude and judge harshly those with opposing views. It is precisely for this reason I was excited to attend the mandatory JusTalks session for the Class of 2020. President Patton wrote in an email to First-Year students, “It demands learning to practice a kind of conversation where we can be both honest about our views and invested in the responses of others. JusTalks is a tiny step towards practicing and strengthening that curiosity. And from that, we can build public spaces that are simultaneously compassionate, engaged and resilient.” After reading this email, many were thrilled for the opportunity to freely share their thoughts in a ‘safe space’ and to engage in constructive dialogue.
Why was JusTalks so disappointing? The entire session felt like an attempt to spread the leftist agenda, and the majority present was inconsiderate of different views. In one segment, a leader read from various anonymous “To Be Honest” (TBH) letters where students could express their thoughts on the day to the entire group. Though this exercise had noble intentions, it rapidly spiraled into a divisive exercise and further polarized the room. A few letters specifically targeted conservative students, identifying them by referencing their room numbers because specific names were not allowed. Conservative students were told, disparagingly and with many expletives, to keep their views to themselves. These “TBH” letters reflect the intolerance many young conservatives encounter on campus. Ultimately, this exercise highlighted a prejudice towards all ideas that did not fit into the leftist narrative, a group which, by definition, should be open to wide-ranging opinions.
We should all respect each other’s views, regardless of whether or not they are different. One should not completely shut down divergent views and immediately leave the conversation. One particularly alarming comment from JusTalks was that friendships should be formed and based upon political views because in the end that is what life is founded on. Excuse me, but life is not about politics. We need to value people for their character, not their political views. In a situation where many liberals cannot imagine looking past politics and actually getting to know a conservative peer, it seems like there’s no resolution.
Another student remarked that Republican values are fundamentally flawed. Jumping to immediate conclusions about someone before getting to know them will never lead to a truly inclusive community. We should not dictate people’s opinions and we should not judge one’s character solely on political views.
Genuinely upset with how the JusTalks day turned out, six conservative students spoke with Professor Miller-Lane and the other leaders of the program. They listened to our concerns, and we are grateful for that. After hearing us express our discomfort with sharing our thoughts for fear of being stigmatized or shouted down, the leaders agreed that conservatives are marginalized on campus. While perhaps to a greater degree people are marginalized for gender, sexuality, class, and ability, we too understand what it is like to feel socially excluded. Knowing how it feels to be excluded on campus, these groups may be able to empathize with the political minority and feel comfortable among each other. This is necessary for an environment of mutual respect and belonging to develop at Middlebury.
To put it simply, being a conservative student on a liberal arts college campus is difficult. Here’s the problem: people are quick to label young conservatives as a bigot, a Trump supporter, and an opponent of equality. A “call-out” culture has developed where students immediately associate all conservatives with the worst aspects of the Republican Party. This could not be farther from the truth. Millennial conservatives overwhelmingly reject the social injustices of the past and embrace ideas of egalitarianism. Many of us recognize Trump’s childish and disrespectful demeanor, refused to vote for him, and share many liberal social ideas. At the same time, we hold intellectually defensible ideas on reform to the current welfare and healthcare policies, believe in the right to bear arms, acknowledge the sanctity of life, etc. While many people associate close-mindedness with Republicans, it is important to realize that for the majority of us, our beliefs are founded in principle and intellectual merit. Affinity for the party is not based on homophobia or self-interest, but rather in believing in what is best for our country. Nevertheless, once you’re labeled a conservative on this campus, you walk around feeling like an outsider in a supposed inclusive community.
Liberals claim to celebrate diversity, so let’s seek to accept diversity in political thought. As a young conservative, I am ready to extend the olive branch. It’s time to appreciate people for the traits that matter: compassion, integrity, authenticity, and kindness, among others.
In her message announcing that JusTalks would be mandatory, President Patton said she looked forward to working with the college “to ensure JusTalks succeeds in its objective of making Middlebury College a more inclusive and aware place for all students.” It failed, so it’s time to try again. LBGTQ activist Stuart Milk proclaimed, “We are less when we don’t include everyone.” Indoctrination and alienation are not the ways to introduce more progressive ideals to conservatives. Open conversation and listening is. We’re ready to move past this. Are you?
Carter Massengill ’20 writes in about Justalks and free speech.