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November 29, 2011

Focusing on the real issues

Students should abandon thoughtful discourse about actual issues and instead yell at each other about latkes and hamantashen.

I can never guess correctly which events at the University of Chicago will raise controversy; College Council elections blow through like the wind off the lake, but gossip surrounding President Robert Zimmer’s marriage ignites like wildfire. I have an easier time predicting which of my friends have suddenly always been Matt & Kim’s biggest fans than which campus events are buzzworthy.

But I can reconcile most of these seeming inconsistencies by deferring to... well, apathy, to be honest. Nobody should care about College Council or Zimmer’s marital status. But what I absolutely cannot stand for is the conspicuous lack of fiery rhetoric and sign waving at the Latke-Hamantash Debate held last Tuesday. There are some things for which refusing to form an opinion and defend it with unabashed vitriol is simply inexcusable. It shows a lack of character, a failure to uphold your civic duty. To turn a blind eye to a divisive issue like this, is, in a word, spineless.

This is particularly peevish considering the spectacle of those feckless few flagrantly waving their free speech in everyone’s face and driving Condoleezza Rice away from campus two weeks ago. The only way such a crowd could justifiably have been drawn to an event like that was if they had mistakenly thought Rice was going to be joined by Squat the Condos onstage for a one-night-only showing of Squat the Condoleezzas. Instead that motley mash-up of anarchist and communist (and I wouldn’t rule out racist) rabble-rousers ruined what was bound to be the most exciting night on campus since O-Week.

If something so uncontroversial as the venerable former Secretary of State for the best two-term president of the 21st century gracing our campus could generate so much noise, why did the Latke-Hamantash debate slip by almost unnoticed? Certainly we at least could have had a Mearsheimer vs. AEPi shouting match to get everyone warmed up before the debate began.

But, no, students are stubbornly focusing on less important issues all over campus. Why was an anti-Adidas banner strung in Bartlett instead of latke propaganda? What business do students have offering Zimmer compromises on socially responsible investing instead of demanding we shift to an all-hamantash portfolio? It is a melancholy object, indeed.

The administrators here work tirelessly to promote the students’ rights to express themselves in a myriad of ways on any issue we want. All the rules in place—that students must have the content of protests pre-screened, that any University staff member can exercise the “authority to direct” under remarkably vague circumstances, requiring permits for sidewalk protests—are in place for our safety and well-being. But then, given all this protection from the University, why do we rarely see rallies on the main quads over which coffee shop is better—Harper or Hallowed Grounds?

Sometimes I think the only ones with opinions on this campus are those agitators who go out and shout about socialized hospitals, promote these investment strategies that irreparably undermine capitalism, and complain about the fact that they still have to pay for their new Adidas sneakers. I know this isn’t true, but, still, nobody took to the streets to protest the fact that the new stones paving Harper Quad clash quite horrendously with the old stone steps of Haskell Hall, or that the C-Shop stopped serving their Winter Blend coffee before Winter Quarter had even started. Our priorities as a student body are clearly confused.

I’m not asking anyone to go out and have calm debates with their friends, classmates, and professors—let’s be reasonable. Obviously, we must strive very hard to keep the level of polemic as high as possible and simultaneously temper any tendencies towards compromise. The Henry Paulson Institute recently brought some groundbreaking insights to light. The Paulson Institute succeeds in proving that the goals of debate are not, as was previously assumed, to bring each opponent closer to the truth located somewhere between their starting positions. Instead, they have shown quite convincingly that under ideal conditions, debate further solidifies each participant’s opinions and breeds a deeply sown resentment between them. They also show that free speech is a zero-sum game. Therefore, it is best when we, as Rosenbaum and Goff-Crews recommended in their letter to the student body, “attempt to shut down the speech of others.”

Everyone knows why we got into the University of Chicago. It is because we are smarter than everyone else and already know everything. Normally, this is fine. We can dominate conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table (“Wait, so you’ve only read some of Foucault? Ha!”), and make those foolish enough to draw us into conversation at a party immediately regret it (“So I see your sweater is red, does that mean you agree with Lenin’s tactic of suppressing the soviets for the sake of a one-party vanguard?”). The trouble arises when there is more than one smartest person alive in the same room. It’s quite a paradox, actually. Yet it’s one we face almost every day.

But there is a solution. Even if your opponent is as perfect as you, she may be somewhat humble and that presents you with an opportunity to strike. Your opinions have been well formed by natural gifts and accumulated wisdom, and you’ve made them quite clear by now, so you damn well better not give them up easily. Most of all, be wary of those who reserve judgment under the pretense of prudence—they are trapping you; if you haven’t solidified your opinions by now, you never will.

Even more important is to be sure your hard-won dogmatism is not misplaced. Our complacent political culture is in dire need of spirited, uncompromising proponents of objective truth. But it is crucial that this fervor be directed through a proper channel. We cannot afford to spend intellectual capital on the worthless issues that so often distract the student body. Instead, let’s focus on deciding once and for all if latkes taste better than hamantashen.

Colin Bradley is a second-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.

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