Engaging with students who promote ideology relating to social justice, intersectionality, an increased presence of government, and theories of oppression can be difficult for conservatives.
These students have a national reputation for provocative tactics to be heard on college campuses across the country, all the way from Berkeley to Yale. Students who advocate for social justice have a community of their own at Wake Forest and have already engaged in multiple protests and other disruptive behaviors over the past year.
While students have gone about handling the percolation of discontent with the administration and current policies of President Trump in different ways, below is some advice to having a productive conversation with a student who advocates for these policies in a civil and respectful fashion
Engage to Understand
Many conservatives at Wake Forest argue with social justice advocates to argue with them, and sometimes end up trivializing the concerns and issues that protestors and social justice advocates raise on campus. To be clear, of the more radical stances taken by social justice-oriented students merit little attention, and can be belligerent enough that there is no use in engagement.
Free speech principles, which all conservatives should support, hold that everyone ought to have a right to express their opinions in a marketplace of ideas. While that does not mean those opinions to have a right to be taken seriously, it is important to attempt to gain an understanding of where activist students are coming from. The more outrageous methods that the social justice community takes at Wake Forest are for getting attention and for people to become more aware of a deep-seated concern that they feel is important to the whole population.
While conservatives and activists may never reach an agreement, it would be extremely disingenuous of any intellectual conservative to not want to have a conversation with a member of the community to understand the context of their stances on issues. Perhaps some common ground can be reached on those issues, or at least clarity of each side’s arguments. The Wake Forest Review has been intensively laboring to make Wake Forest a safer community for free speech, and it is important for conservatives to engage with other’s ideas just as they wish to be engaged with.
Keep the High Ground
As observed with podcast conversation last semester between Ryan Wolfe and Rakin Nasar, members of the social justice community at Wake Forest have a deeply personal stake in many issues, which can cause them to become irate when talking to those they disagree with. While some emotion can be justified, social justice warriors often cross the line into ad hominem attacks. Mr. Nasar crossed the line in the podcast when he insulted Wolfe personally and made off-base and frankly reviling statements about conservatives, calling them illiterate and white supremacists.
This type of rhetoric estranges others from the debate, and Wolfe did well to steer clear of insulting Nasar. Of course, this is not to say that one ought to be wholly deferential and kind to a person who personally degrades conservatives. Yet, if conservatives on campus are to convince moderate students and even principled liberals of their ideas and decrease derision on campus, it is imperative they comport themselves in a respectful fashion where they are not dismissive of the concerns of lefts, nor accusatory or presumptuous of what leftists think.
Conservatives must play by a set of rules that allows us to keep the high ground and gain credibility, instead of resorting to many of the tactics of the left.
Know Thy Enemy
Conservatives need to read left-wing literature. If you wish to discuss gender issues with feminists, read MacKinnon and Dworkin. If you want to discuss race, read more Baldwin and Coates. The reality is that most social justice advocates on college campuses willfully ignore reasonable conservative opinions and logic. Anything considered ‘patriarchal,’ ‘heteronormative,’ and ‘ethno-nationalist’ has no place in their dialectic.
Therefore, instead of using traditional lines of conservative reasoning, what is more rhetorically salient is utilizing the vocabulary and terminology of a campus activist. Cite the same authors, know them thoroughly and reduce their points to illogical nothingness. The way the political playing field has turned in college, unfortunately, is that conservatives can no longer convince most students of their points using traditional lines of argument.
Instead of victimizing ourselves over this fact, let’s be practical—come to discussions prepared and well-read in the annals of secularist and socialist literature. If you don’t know what a social justice oriented student is even talking about, it can be difficult to refute their arguments. Ultimately, what a shrewd and practical conservative should do is turn the arguments and intellectuals of the far-left on themselves by highlighting the inconsistencies of their arguments using their own beloved terminology.
Discern the Value of Dialogue
Conservatives need to make the distinction between when dialogue is appropriate and what issues that deserve dialogue. Many times, activist students aren’t interested in having an honest conversation about the issues. For example, the Eudaimonia Institute drama a year ago merited little discourse, as the grand and deep-seated conspiracy that a Koch Brothers-funded think tank would erode the values of Wake Forest was truly nonsensical, and dignified no response.
Indeed, when leftists see some issues in strictly moral terms there is no conversation to be had. Some on the left see capitalism and commerce as the root of inequality, which can in their eyes, only be an evil and societal ill. Yet, as Friedman and Hayek tell us, the free market and rule of law inevitably lead to some degree of inequality, and that inequality is based on capacity, not opportunity. To charge that capitalism is the problem rather than capitalism fixing the problem is a dubious point with which to begin a dialogue.
In summation, we cannot lose sight of the fact that while the methods, divisions, and anger that SJWs espouse on campus are deeply problematic, it is important to engage to create greater understanding between opposing sides. Conservatives must play by a set of rules that allows us to keep the high ground and gain credibility, instead of resorting to many of the tactics of the left. Purposely creating more outrage and more ugly protests is counterproductive, when we handle a conversation with SJWs with logic and understanding. Using these strategies, conservatives can do their part to increase unity and understanding on campus and in our country.