Ironically, as a politics major, I hate conflict. I have friends from across the political spectrum, and rather than risk disappointing someone by disagreeing with them, I often prefer to speak in general terms when talking politics. However, when I do not contribute my thoughts to political discussions, I cheat myself out of a richer liberal arts experience. I also fail to lead by example in creating the community I envision for Washington and Lee, a community where sharing individual perspectives promotes more debate and discussion and where we all engage 100% in wrestling with difficult political questions together.
W&L is a school built on community. The Honor System and Speaking Tradition attempt to unite us through the values of honesty and respect. Other institutions, such as our small class sizes, student clubs, and residential housing, all aim to forge bonds between students. W&L creates an environment where we can learn and grow together.
Unfortunately, many students still feel excluded from large parts of the W&L community. Perhaps students feel uncomfortable with our school’s party culture, or they belong to a group underrepresented on campus. Whatever the cause, when people feel like they do not belong in their community, they feel less inclined to share their ideas and perspectives with their peers.
When people refuse to express their beliefs, we all suffer for two reasons:
First, every person possesses different parts of their identity that are of extreme importance to them- some examples include a person’s faith, their family upbringing, their race or ethnicity, their hometown, their gender, their country of origin, their work, their sexual orientation, or their economic status. How an individual’s identity interacts with the communities around them colors their life experiences.
Our experiences and identities influence how we view current affairs, and they frequently mix across political lines. No single person possesses a perfectly objective perception of reality; we each view the world from where we stand in it, not from a removed, omniscient pedestal. Additionally, every person’s subjective view of the world seems to them like the utmost truth, and all human beings feel intense negative emotions when their interests and identities are threatened. These emotions, while justifiable, can inhibit our ability to gain a clearer view of the world and to consider the viewpoints of others who, though they disagree with us on policy, experience similar strong feelings when talking about politics.
Despite our subjective viewpoints, self-government as a community requires objective analysis in order to create public policies that benefit the most people. How can we obtain such analysis? Our Founding Fathers gave us an answer.
The Founders understood the problem of bias. They referred to it as “local prejudices.” To address viewpoint bias, the Founders began by admitting their own fallibility; Benjamin Franklin said, “the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.” The Founders created Congress as an institution insulated enough for lawmakers to study the affairs of the various states and representative enough to compensate for individual legislators’ blind spots.
A system in which we learn from the experiences of others as well as use facts and reason enables us to overcome the limited scope of our personal perspectives. Debating honestly about our beliefs is the only way we can gain a more accurate understanding of the world.
Second, sharing our perspectives and mixing with people whom we vehemently disagree with reminds us of the common human nature underpinning all of our experiences. When Libertarians and Democratic Socialists work together on Mock Con, perform together in choir, or study together for a chem test, it proves so much more unites us than divides us.
It is the miracle of human nature that we can empathize with the feelings of others despite never experiencing their specific life. Our small student body forces us to get to know people with whom we differ greatly in politics. These relationships remind us that our passionate disagreements stem from different life experiences rather than someone being “evil” or “inhumane.” Seeing the human experience behind political positions helps us trust that even people we disagree with are genuinely advocating policies they believe will make the world a better place. Radical honestly about our political goals and the life experiences that motivate them can help create the open dialogue and trust that is necessary for a community to solve problems together.
Washington and Lee University and our student community should serve both reasons stated above. George Washington declared, “Should ever be apprehended that prejudice would be entertained in one part of the Union against another, an efficacious remedy will be to assemble the youth of every part under such circumstances as will, by the freedom of intercourse and collision of sentiment, give to their minds the direction of truth, philanthropy, and mutual conciliation.”
Our W&L institutions and community can increase our understanding of our fellow students, of ourselves, and of the whole world. To gain these benefits we must be willing to honestly and wholeheartedly share our core beliefs and viewpoints, engage in debate and discussion, and participate in our fellow student’s individual growth and quest for knowledge within an inclusive W&L community. A publication such as The Vigil is precisely where such sharing of viewpoints can and should take place.