November 22, 2002

Students need convictions

Polemics are the stock trade of students, especially ones who are brash and fairly intelligent. But in our discourses, such as the debates printed in the Maroon about Israel or conservatism versus liberalism, we lack the sort of sober-minded approach that lends credence to an argument. Even worse, the strident claims we make often lack candor and genuine conviction. This is because we have an immature intelligence, and thus our arguments often have a dogmatic and insistent timbre that fails to convince any reader not already in agreement with the author's view. I am not speaking of any one particular article or debate, rather, I think this description generally applies to the way we discourse as students. We pay lip service to an ideal of rational dialogue while at the same time arguing in terms that almost preclude a real exchange of ideas or an impetus to action.

The printed debate over the Israel-Palestine issue, both in campus publications and major newspapers, is a prime example. Articles on the conflict consistently fail to acknowledge the human tragedy on the side they oppose. With the exception of the recent editorial by the Muslim Students Association, editorials, letters, and advertisements commenting on the conflict omit any language of human sympathy. The pro-Israel camp never begins a discussion by recognizing the sad fact that innocent Palestinians have been killed, even if unintentionally, and furthermore, that it is a terrible shame that violence continues without any visible resolution. Likewise, Palestinians and their supporters rarely say anything about the fact that killing civilians with suicide bombs is terrible and sad, especially when some of those civilians do not support the actions of their government or its military. Most of the debate is characterized by one side demonizing the other and pleading the tragedy of only their own case. It happens that this particular example applies well beyond the borders of academia, but the sort of dogmatic ungenerous style of argumentation demonstrates the basic folly that is particularly common to college students.

The recent bickering in this paper over the conservative-liberal divide provides another example of our lack of civility when we argue, and further points to our general lack of genuine and mature conviction. Whether liberal or conservative, collegiate rants that claim high ideals for their own ideology while attempting to show a lack of conviction in their opponents fail precisely because of their lack of generosity to their opponents, and their immature view towards their own position. To say conservatives are wrong, mean, and elitist or that liberals are wimpy, unrealistic, and unpatriotic is to immediately undermine your own credence. Even "real" liberals and "real" conservatives are not so far apart ideologically that they cannot find some legitimacy in each other's views. Political arguments, when convincing, demonstrate an even-handed and sympathetic understanding of the view they oppose before they explain their disagreement. Non-polemical arguments also take the convictions they evince seriously, and thus do not overstate their case such that they are committed to absurd views.

Even in cases where a polemic or rant may be useful or poignant, many college students are uncommitted to the views they express, mostly because the nature of so much student discourse is flippant and unconvinced. Many become vegetarians or profess love of socialism, or declare the merits of libertarianism, while failing to undertake any significant action towards the causes they so ardently claim to support. How many supporters of the war in Iraq have signed up for the reserves, and how many anti-globalization protestors have gone to Malaysia to organize factory labor?

This is not to say that these extreme measures are the only way to live in accordance with ideals, yet I cannot picture American university students lying down in Tiananmen Square, protesting the communist regime in Prague in 1968, or even marching on Washington. Somewhere along the way we lost our edge, and now we just rant half-jokingly or blindly follow a stale model of protest pioneered by our parents. Student editorials and campus protest seems to have become more of a bad joke than something the country looks to as a catalyst of change. I simply wish to highlight that if we want our arguments to be taken seriously, and not just seen as the flippant intellectual sparring of adolescents, we have to demonstrate conviction in the way we argue and the way we live.