Some thoughts on confronting opposing opinions on campus
[I was prompted to write this for students at a gap-year yeshiva after a conversation I had with one of its faculty, but it occurred to me that it may be of use to a wider audience, especially as it applies equally to social media.]
This is not a list of arguments to make, rejoinders to employ or judo-techniques for winning arguments (though I may throw one in here or there). It’s about one’s general attitude and demeanor in approaching campus discussions, arguments, rants and pile-ons.
I should mention that I haven’t been on US college campus in 40 years and have no credentials related to this topic. I work in software and have degrees appropriate to that. That said, I’ve been involved in many, many discussions, arguments, rants and pile-ons on social media for many years, I’ve observed campus goings-on from a distance, and have read a fair amount on related topics. What follows is a brief distillation of my current thinking about these things.
I should also mention that at my age and in my social situation, it’s easier for me to follow the advice I’m giving than it will be for you as a youth in college. Your Mileage May Vary, and part of my advice is to properly set one’s expectations, but if on occasion you remember a bit of advice and use it to good effect, it will start to become natural. This is known as “growing up.”
Be Prepared to Lose
You may as well, because it’s likely to happen more than once. Maybe a lot. The equanimity you can bring to bear on it, and on everything else we’ll discuss, will do more for you than winning on points. What does winning an argument in a classroom, a dorm, the cafeteria or the quad even mean? That you stumped the other guy and got the last word? Hey, it could happen, but win or lose, you have to ask yourself: Now what? Experience teaches us that the ripples are not likely to spread out until all the world knows the Truth. In fact, there’s every chance that you and your opponent will end up relitigating the matter again before long.
And why is winning even important? What exactly does one win? And is conflict the best way to approach the subject under discussion? Okay, it’s bombastic to say you’re engaged together in quest for truth, but some of the techniques mentioned later are rather like that – only without the bombast.
A few more points:
- Don’t beat yourself up – all is not lost. The fact that you were stumped doesn’t mean there isn’t a decisive rejoinder to his last point, only that you didn’t think of it in the moment (and the same is true of him if you won)
- Your reputation among the onlookers will depend more on how you conduct yourself with winning or losing than on whether you won or lost
- Going in prepared to lose takes pressure off, which will not only help you behave better, it’ll help you perform better
- This isn’t an argument against knowing your subject and thinking your arguments – and your opponent’s – through. That’s always going to make things better, but consider the following exchange from The Karate Kid:
Daniel: “But you know karate!”
Mr. Miyagi: “Always someone know more.”
And there’s a non-negligible possibility that the other guy will simply lie.
- There’s no shame in saying “That’s an interesting point; I’m going to have to think about that.” In fact, though examples are as rare as hen’s teeth, there’s no shame in saying “You know what? You’re right.”
- Get used to l’esprit de l’escalier.
Be Prepared for Worse
I’m limiting myself to arguments – there are obviously much worse things that can happen. Even arguments can degenerate pretty severely, though. Take the famous Yale-coed meltdown. (BTW, the way the professor, Nick Christakis, handled himself during that long confrontation – captured on many YouTube videos like this one – is worth studying. The man’s a hero.)
Short of that, expect groans and eye-rolls, yelling and name-calling. And that’s just from the professors.
Don’t Treat the Other Guy as Your Enemy
Before going on let me be clear about some things: I’m always right. I’m so obviously right that the people arguing with me are likely blinded by tribal loyalty, evil intent or just plain stupidity. They don’t even realize where their dumb opinions come from, but I see right through them. Four times out of five I can smack their arguments down so thoroughly that they simply give up. There are only two problems with arguing from these convictions:
- It’s unhelpful
- It’s harmful.
The former is because it doesn’t change people’s minds. There’s actually a pretty large body of research showing just that. The latter is because it not only alienates people from your position, it stokes the anger, outrage and incivility that typify our exchanges.
I mention this because my recommendations are so ostentatiously nice and cloyingly generous that I would recoil from them except for two saving graces: they’re true and they work. So…
Remember That We’re All God’s Children
I will reiterate, and probably not for the last time, that nothing will serve you better in argument than equanimity. I’m reminded of an exchange from The American President:
“I think the important thing is not to make it look like we’re panicking.”
“See, and I think the important thing is to actually not to be panicking.”
Equanimity is easy to achieve when one is genuinely seeking only the Good. So it helps to keep in mind that the guy you’re arguing with is actually human (this is true often enough for you to make it your default assumption) and that he doesn’t see himself as the villain. Some valuable insights flow from that:
Try to Understand Your Opponent’s Position
Depending on circumstances, this can be easy or hard. If the person is someone who likes to explain himself to an attentive audience, not only will you have gained insight into his position, you may have gained some goodwill.
If he’s more the “This is so obvious I shouldn’t have to explain it” type, the general advice is to try restating his argument to him, as in “So what you’re saying is…” If he’s impervious to that, well, you’ll have done your best. Remember about being prepared to lose. Living on campus, like life in general, is a game of inches.
Never Use or Respond to an Ad-Hominem Argument
Always stick to the issue. Never tell the other guy “You’re only saying that because…” Don’t get me wrong, he is, but now you’ve made the argument a referendum on his character while vitiating any chance of real discussion.
If he says it to you, as is likely to happen pretty often, you have a few choices. You can ignore it and try to power through as if he hadn’t said it. You can suggest leaving personalities out of the discussion. You can say that you’re not going to respond to personal attacks. Sometimes you can just prove him wrong (“Actually, I am Mexican,” “Actually, I do think antisemitic speech is protected”), though you shouldn’t dwell on that because, again, the goal isn’t to score rhetorical points.
The flip side of being prepared to lose graciously is being prepared to win graciously. If you do happen to score a rhetorical point, stump your opponent or get the crowd in your corner, don’t be an ass. Tell the guy you’re happy if you’ve made yourself understood or given him something to think about. Shake his hand. (I was present once on a hill overlooking the Jordan Valley where a senior archeologist gave us a talk about the locations of various biblical sites and got into a heated argument with R. Yaakov Medan about the location of Kadesh Barnea, at the end of which R. Medan breaks into a tremendous grin and wraps the guy in a bear-hug, saying he hasn’t had such a good argument in a while.)
Of course there’s a good chance your opponent won’t reciprocate your graciousness. That’s on him.
So far we’ve discussed the desirability of approaching disputes with good will and good manners, but we haven’t said much about actually getting your own point across. Yes and no. It’s precisely the attitude we’ve encouraged that can give you the equanimity, the composure, the poise to prosecute your own position most effectively. When you’re no longer obsessed with winning, when you refrain from personal attacks and shrug off those aimed at you, when you’ve shown that you’re not afraid to give your opponent’s side a fair hearing, that’s when you can state your own opinion, however unpopular, without fear.
I’m assuming that, as Orthodox Jews and Zionists, you hold several opinions that are outrageous in the culture typical of an American college campus. (I certainly hope you do, because otherwise I wouldn’t be inclined to help you with this.) Don’t repress them. You’re stating them without rancor and you’re open to entertaining objections; the fact that others are shocked that anyone would dare say such things needn’t faze you. Don’t expect to be carried back to the dorm on the shoulders of cheering classmates for saying that the 1619 Project falsifies history, or that Jews are indigenous to Israel, or that trans-women shouldn’t compete in women’s sports, but if all goes well some of them may remember what you said and still think you’re otherwise an okay guy. The latter isn’t important because it means you’ll get invited to some parties; it’s important because it forces them to consider that one can be an okay guy and think those thoughts.
Don’t Curry Favor
In the depths to which our public discourse has sunk it’s typical to attack people for things they haven’t said. “You favor limits on abortion? So you think women don’t have rights over their own bodies.” That sort of thing. I predict that’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen a lot. It’s okay, and sometimes even useful, to draw that out: “How did you come to that conclusion?” or “What’s the connection?” Or you can say “I’m concerned for the defenseless baby,” or whatever your argument is.
What you shouldn’t do is begin with “I think women have rights to their own bodies, but…” That tells them two things: One, that they are the arbiters of morality and two, that it’s important to you that they agree you’re moral. Each of those is an unforced concession. The temptation is strong; resist it.
Don’t Apologize Unless You Mean It
By the same token, don’t apologize for infractions of whimsical rules. How you deal with the accusations will vary, more-of-less as how you deal with ad-hominem attacks, but resist the temptation to apologize unless you think you may have actually done something wrong. By-all-means, consider that possibility, but on your own terms – not to placate anyone.
It’s worth mentioning that, given that our subject is verbal confrontation, any accusation is going to be based on the idea that “words are violence”, or something in the same family. There is no reason to posit that, and good reason to deny it. That means not only that you don’t need to apologize for incidental hurt people might feel on hearing things you say that are not directed at them, you also needn’t do things like recite half the alphabet when what you mean is gay.
Based on the title, you may have been expecting tips, techniques and arguments for winning disputes. I have some of those and you’re welcome to contact me about them, but ultimately you’re not going to be able to control what the other guy says or how the observers are going to react. What you can control is your own behavior and demeanor, so that’s what I’ve spoken to. In our present moment, if you treat others, and yourself, with dignity, you’ll have done something more important than making, or even winning, an argument.
But, this will probably require courage. You have to be willing to risk ostracism, name-calling and whatever administrative harassment can be brought to bear. Best you make peace with that up front. As Ibsen’s hero said at the end of An Enemy of the People, “You see, the point is that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.” I think you’ll find, though, that your willingness to stand alone, coupled with your good behavior, will ultimately garner allies.