Republi-WHAT? Conservative voices scarce, stifled on campus

By Kayla Safran '13

There is no doubt that there is a large liberal majority at Hamilton. Yet most people seem unaware or unconcerned about the negative effects of this lack of political diversity.  Hamilton’s liberal-dominated political atmosphere not only weakens the quality of our education, but has also led to the widespread stigmatization of conservative and libertarian students.

Our education—our academic experience at Hamilton—is greatly disadvantaged when all the participants agree on political issues.  Our debates, arguments and discussions both inside the classroom and out are nowhere near the quality they could be (or should be) because conservative voices are largely not present. How can anyone learn to articulate what they believe if there is no body to challenge them? Are we really learning to think critically and open-mindedly when everyone at the table more or less agrees? Hamilton students who do support liberal-progressive politics are able to grow complacent in their convictions, the many who are more moderate about politics simply learn to accept the Hamilton “norm” and the few conservatives are forced into silence. This situation is deadly for intellectual growth.

Furthermore, because of the lack of intelligent conservative voices on campus, many students leave Hamilton knowing practically nothing about the American political right. Modern American conservatism is incredibly divided—the differences between neo-conservatives, traditional conservatives and libertarians are vast. But most Hamilton students (and professors) wouldn’t even recognize these distinctions if you named them. Yet many feel comfortable making broad-sweeping negative claims about the Republican Party and conservatives in general. I’ve heard it all: “Republicans are racist,” “Republicans are homophobic,” “Republicans hate women.” These blanket statements demonstrate a real ignorance about the history of conservative thinking in America, and do nothing to foster intelligent or productive conversation.

While of course everyone is entitled to their own opinions and has the right to speak openly, there is a double standard about political correctness and free speech at Hamilton. While the community is hypersensitive to speech that offends certain marginalized groups, Hamilton generally seems to accept and sometimes even encourage condemnations of conservatives. Higher education everywhere seems to be struggling with this unfair dichotomy; in a piece titled “Feigning Free Speech on Campus,” published in the New York Times last week, Greg Lukianoff highlighted the many ways in which liberal arts colleges repress free speech. He suggests that in trying to promote civility and “niceness,” colleges actually stifle debate, hinder intellectual growth and violate the notion of “free inquiry.”

Lukianoff also cites a statistic that speaks perfectly to my final point about the stigmatization of conservative students.  In 2010, the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that out of a sample of 24,000 college students only 35.6% strongly agreed that they felt “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.” The problem of an overwhelming liberal majority paired with a politically correct environment is self-perpetuating—even when students with conservative opinions are included in political conversations they often are hesitant to speak up. There are many people at Hamilton who I didn’t even know were conservative until this semester, even though I’ve known them for almost four years, because they had been afraid to reveal themselves as supportive of unpopular positions. The Hamilton culture is so vehemently anti-conservative and anti-Republican that an admission that you’re not voting for Obama, for example, precipitates a wave of such harsh judgment that most people would just rather avoid saying anything at all.

At the College Republicans meeting last week, members discussed their experiences as conservatives on the Hamilton campus. Most were much like my own—feeling a general sense of misinformed bias among peers, waiting to “come out” as conservative to friends and constantly being on the defensive about politics. Other stories, however, extended beyond the student body; several students recounted stories about how professors dismissed their opinions in class or even flat out told them that they are wrong for thinking in a certain way. Others had similar experiences with administrators! Publius Virgilus Rogers Professor of American History Robert Paquette, in many ways the only advocate for conservative students left at Hamilton, has recently written about some of the most egregious stories, which reveal the extent and depth of this prejudicial attitude on our campus.

It is simply unacceptable that conservative students are treated this way at a school that prides itself on open-mindedness. The disproportionate number of leftist students and faculty will probably not change in the immediate future, but the Hamilton community can make efforts to change the overwhelmingly anti-conservative attitudes, which it harbors. Talking with members of the Hamilton Democrats in just the last week has encouraged me to believe that this kind of change is possible. If we all make an effort to be more open minded—to consider opposing political views before just dismissing them, and to learn about conservative policies and beliefs before unfairly pigeonholing conservative students—we will all better off intellectually and Hamilton will become a place where students really do learn from each other and how to think for themselves.

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