About two weeks ago, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks wrote a brilliant and much-talked about column in the New York Times about what he sees as the biggest problem in American political and cultural discourse–contempt. He writes that in the way most Americans are thinking, ”motive attribution asymmetry leads to something far worse [than incivility]: contempt, which is a noxious brew of anger and disgust. And not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but also for other people.”
With the oft-heard rally cry of pundits of all stripes in mind–that Americans simply don’t speak civilly–this is an interesting turn towards perhaps a deeper issue, of which incivility is actually symptomatic.
Do we just despise each other?
It very well might be the case. 61% of self-identified Democrats in a 2018 Axios poll think that Republicans are racist, bigoted, or sexist, with another 21% checking in maintaining the idea that Republicans are evil. Only 3% see their counterparts as thoughtful. Republicans are hardly better though, with 54% believing Democrats are spiteful, and 23% thinking their long-time sparring partners are evil.
Clearly, the figures above reveal the terribly large scope of our contempt for each other nationally. While an institution that espouses community as much as Wake Forest does would theoretically not reach such terrible conclusions, recent events have troubled my assessment of how much we actually tolerate each other. A list of demands, not suggestions, not even requests was made by a group of students to compassionate administrators a few weeks ago. These demands were acquiesced to with rapidity.
In a recent pro-Palestine awareness week on Wake campus, students felt the need to shut down their event due to “harassment” from protestors, and yet at the same time made posters in the center of campus with adages inscribed such as “resistance is not terrorism”, and an exhibition that accused the Israeli state of “murdering children,” which incriminates both parties for uncouth behavior.
This is not even to mention the outright discursive behavior offered by student protestors towards apologetic university administrators in the blackface/confederate flag saga of a few weeks prior at a panel specifically designed to address student concerns regarding the school’s racist past.
These behaviors barely received attention from any student commentators in newspapers after early reports, nor to my understanding were they discussed widely on campus after they transpired.
The collective silence posits two unfortunate truths about the Wake Forest community, and frankly, they perpetuate each other in a vicious feedback loop: we are terrified of having conversations across difference, and we have at least a subculture, if not a larger campus culture of contempt.
The entire idea undergirding the initiative Call to Conversation, which I’ve previously written on for the Review was to have conversations that “transcend divisiveness” according to the school’s own statement. The ‘Rethinking Community’ conference and its subsequent year-long project last year put individuals of wide-ranging politics on panels with each other, questioning what it means to live and be in union with those around us, specifically when considering our differences. Simply put, the institutional design of some of the university’s flagship programming over the past two years, in particular, has focused a great deal on closing the gap between living abreast one another and actually engaging with one another.
What came of all of this? Plenty of good results and polite, extolling testimonials, of course. But when we could not distinguish the institutional headway we are making with the sins of generations past, we also became more outraged with each other and our respective identities after national events opened the floodgates on Reynolda campus. We got more disgust, more alienation, and we actually now end up more lonely than before.
Though in some ways good intentioned–to not offend and incite conflict, namely– a fear among many students to tackle issues of import with responsibility, candidness, and humility in the spirit of Pro Humanitate only serves to make us worse off.
Even if campus groups that support these events of discomfort over the past semester are in the small minority in their sentiments, their ideas are certainly worth engaging. Is it the least bit appropriate for university administrators to publicly and “unconditional[ly]” support the liberation of Palestine? Do we as a community want to create a space for students of an “explicitly” singular identity? I tend to think these are dangerous ideas for the future health of our campus culture and the social and intellectual well-being of all of our students, but unless we engage with them as a campus, we are simply holding these ideas hostage and with contempt.
Arthur Brooks sees the act of contempt as “dismissive,” as the person exhibiting it shows no real concern for and gives no credence to the thoughts or emotions expressed by another. If this is the definition we go by, then the Wake Forest student body is certainly contemptuous by omission on the grounds of simply not engaging with, and by extension caring about, a vocal minority of its fellow students’ frustrations of their behavior.
This certainly doesn’t mean we have to agree with these demands or the behavior of students who participated in these controversial events. In fact, I think many of the demands made in recent weeks are unfeasible, blatantly unfair, and manifestly ill-devised. Bad ideas deserve to be refuted so that everyone knows they are, in fact, bad. I don’t, however, think less of my classmates who devise them. Clearly, I’ll never know, nor will I ever be able to fully understand the realities of a minority student on campus because I am not one. I further understand that these proposals are coming from a place of genuine concern and care for marginalized students on campus.
Apropos of this concern, it’s only intuitive (although not completely exculpating by any means) why students act out when we don’t give some of the legitimate qualms they have with other students and administrators the attention and engagement they merit. These qualms include: recent racist incidents; constant judgment and categorizing; and a constant desire for students of different opinions to need to explain themselves tiringly, which breeds unwelcomeness and numbness to connecting with others.
If we do not adequately engage with these lamentations, no matter how off-base disaffected students might be in their proposals to remedy them, the contempt that we’re fostering renders a “zero percent chance of connecting with that person and persuading that person,” who proposes these ideas, per Brooks in his conversation with the Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes. In fact, without these conversations, we branch into our own fractal subcommunities to relate and editorialize–making ourselves unhappier and more lonely in turn by not having a community larger than our insular groups.
Wake Forest truly has a culture of contempt, and this is partly from the best of all intentions in our obsequious avoidance of offending one another. We can solve this problem solely by engaging out of intellectual curiosity, understanding, and neighborly love for one another, in the newspaper columns, in our classes, and on the quad. Until then, we’re no better than the national mess that our country cannot seem to get out of.