December 24, 2020

Fighting Fire With More Fire: The Thinker’s Thoughtless Approach to Mainstreaming

The Thinker’s failing, inflammatory approach to campus integration should inspire a re-evaluation of leftist strategy.

Last winter, undergraduate Evita Duffy, now managing editor of the Chicago Thinker, played a role in the Institute of Politics (IOP)’s campaign to encourage student voting. In response to her contribution, which consisted of her holding a sign that reads, “I vote because the coronavirus won’t destroy America, but socialism will,” she was met with relentless harassment, which escalated to death threats, from UChicago students. It was this climate, one of extreme frustration from those on the right who found themselves under attack, that led to the creation of the Thinker, UChicago’s fledgling conservative paper.

One core goal of the Thinker is to “defend conservative and libertarian perspectives” against “leftist dogma” by “tak[ing] up arms––i.e., pens and paper––and fight[ing] back.” And, as I learned from conversations with staff writers and editors at the paper, it’s their hope that right-leaning ideas will be incorporated into regular discourse at the university through their writing. Strongly committed to combating the effects of liberal hegemony, which they view as leading students to become “intellectually lazy and incapable of thorough reflection,” members of the Thinker have written with palpable aggression. Yet this aggression has completely failed to integrate their voices into common spaces at UChicago––if anything, their heavy-handed, inflammatory approach at integration has furthered the divide between progressives and conservatives on campus. And from speaking to members of the paper, it’s clear that nothing will change for the foreseeable future.

Admittedly, there are articles published by the Thinker in which domains of conservative thought are discussed in relatively uncontroversial ways that could lead to fruitful conversations. However, as Vice President for Editorial Operations, Analysis, and Intellectual Formation Declan Hurley says, the most-read articles from the Thinker are “going to be the ones that attract the most controversy.” Nearly all of the most popular pieces on the site mirror mainstream conservative thought in a way that reliably triggers a knee-jerk reaction from those on the left. As I write this column, the most-read article on the site is third-year Sonni Fitzsimonds’s “Unity? No Thanks, I’ll Pass,” in which we’re handed stock assertions that the “Democrat lackeys”––in this case CNN, MSNBC, the Associated Press, etc.––have preemptively and groundlessly declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election. She then goes on to make accusations that Democrats started this trend of doubting election results, rehashing the past four years of divisive fighting about Russia’s involvement in 2016.

Predictably, the response to this article in the comment section has been severe and unproductive. Moving past several comments that cannot be quoted here and one Gary Johnson–related comment that is as sarcastic as it is sexually explicit, one user, going under the alias of Leon Festinger, left thorough comments on the article as if grading a paper. But even this quickly devolved into mockery––“To your point on the coronavirus, all I can say is fuck off...I personally didn’t believe I would make it this far in the article without painkillers”––before Fitzsimonds is left with a C-minus and even more derision in the form of feedback.

The reactions the Thinker has evoked thus far are characterized best by Fitzsimonds, who, during our conversation, described the two main groups reading the paper as “conservatives that already agree with what they’re reading and leftists that just want to get angry.” Yet when I asked various members of the editorial board how they could change the way students engage with their content, they all echoed Fitzsimonds’s insistence that “the base issue is the open-mindedness of the reader.” Senior Opinion Editor Eden Negussie told me that it’s not productive to “water down” conservative ideas to “appease people that are…more left.” In response to the same line of questioning, Senior Analysis Editor Mitch Robson explained several ideas he had for events to facilitate political conversations but did not raise the possibility of changing the Thinker’s approach to its coverage, instead saying, “We’re not going to compromise our views.”

Through these conversations, I learned that early in the process of forming the Thinker there were many internal debates over its motto: “Outthink the mob.” Some were worried that characterizing the left as a mob would be seen as too divisive, concerns which ultimately rang true for many on our campus. Yet the desire to forcefully stand up for conservative ideas eventually won out, and concerns over division have been tabled ever since.

As bothersome as this approach may be, I can’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. The only people on this campus that behave with the same kind of exclusionary, all-or-nothing mindset as members of the Thinker are individuals on the left reacting to their ideas. This trend began before the Thinker even existed, evinced best through Duffy’s ordeal with the IOP. Simply for challenging socialism, albeit in a very clumsy and public way, Duffy was mocked, insulted, and repeatedly told that she was the most hated person on campus. Even now, it seems like a vast majority of our student population regularly expresses the idea that just associating with conservatives on campus is loathsome. In my time here, the only contexts in which my conservative peers have come up are ones of derision and general avoidance tactics. So when I accuse members of the Thinker of aggressively insular behavior, I can’t help but picture them pointing the finger right back at us, and it feels as though we enter an endless cycle of finger-pointing, frustration, and discord.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not and will not apologize for the arguments made by writers at the Thinker: that journalists announcing Biden’s victory are “Democrat lackeys,” that the Democratic party doesn’t support women, or that the Democrats have used COVID–19 as a political tool. The values that these articles promote are inexcusable. But as a sole matter of progressive strategy, the alienation of conservatives is clearly not working. 74 million people voted for Trump in the 2020 election, and as a country we cannot fundamentally move beyond his presidency until we can convince them to move forward with us.

Mirroring the ascent of many prominent conservative papers at other top universities, like The Dartmouth Review and The Princeton Tory, the Thinker began with a minimal presence, but it is showing signs of future success. According to editors at the paper, the Thinker has seen an uptick in readers following an appearance by Duffy on Fox News, and there are rumors that several prominent members of the conservative media subscribe to its email newsletter. If such associative credibility is utilized properly, growth seems inevitable. Yet whether it succeeds or fails, it will remain an institution that solely helps students of differing political views talk past each other, at least so long as nothing changes.

It’s clear from the rigidity of those at the Thinker, however, that if we want progress, if we want more productive political conversations that actually change minds, it will have to start from left to right. When those at the Thinker call for more tolerance of free speech, it can feel like you’re supporting their harmful ideas simply by acknowledging them. But it’s time to recognize that the open discussion of conservative ideas, as an opportunity to air and correct ignorance, is not just beneficial but essential for the success of progressive goals. As reluctant as you may be to hear this, we can respond critically to content from the Thinker without supporting its validity, and we can treat conservatives as thoughtful peers without supporting their political goals. In fact, it may be our only way forward.

Clark Kovacs is a first-year in the College.