The politics of a classroom

Right-leaning students say campus often sidelines their politics

Right-leaning students are often outnumbered in university settings.
Right-leaning students are often outnumbered in university settings.

For conservative students, entering a university classroom can be like walking a political tightrope.

According to some students at Queen’s,being in a tutorial where their viewpoints are in the minority can affect the comfort they feel when expressing their opinion in a classroom discussion. 

Aidan Scott, vice-president of policy for the Queen’s University Conservative Association (QUCA), said he feels his perspectives are often discounted in class. 

While he feels safe sharing his views on campus, it seems as though others often dismiss his opinion’s validity.

“Whether or not my views are taken seriously [at large], whether or not my views are generally considered in debate within the classroom … I would say not,” Scott, ArtSci ‘20, said.

He doesn’t mind the disagreement he often faces from peers for his ideas. But it’s clear that the reaction he  receives varies quite drastically from his left-leaning peers. 

Scott notes the pushback he receives from classmates could be more subtle, such as limiting the scope of discussion in tutorial.

He said this is undesirable in a university setting. 

“We should be open to as many views as possible [and] I don’t think we are,” he said.

To bridge this gap among students, Scott feels the most effective strategy is taking the time to genuinely learn and evaluate other viewpoints and facilitate discussion between campus political clubs.

“Reading into the opposition, not making assumptions and generalizations when you go into conversation with them … but being critical,” he said. 

For Cailean Cook, ArtSci ‘20, these assumptions make up much of the friction that right-leaning students experience. 

Lumping a variety of people together, he said, overlooks the many nuances between conservatives—whose perspectives vary as much those on the left.

“I think that that does do harm, because it assumes that the right is monolithic and that the right has no disagreement and that the right is far more radical or different than it automatically is,” Cook said.

He believes this generalization of the right contributes to the message that free speech and open discussion are important pillars of university—as long as it fits within unspoken boundaries.

It may come in part from the argument that conservative views may more readily harm marginalized groups than liberal views and total unmediated discussion may put these groups at risk. 

This was the gist of an open letter to Principal Woolf regarding Jordan Peterson, which was signed by over 100 students and faculty from Queen’s in February. It encouraged Woolf to cancel Peterson’s talk in March. 

“Your defence of the event on the grounds of free speech misrepresents its potential consequences to members of our community; the defence lends support to a special interest group, while betraying the trust of marginalized groups on this campus,” the letter said.

Cook doesn’t agree with the argument that conservative views harm these groups more than others. “I don’t know if right-wing views do target marginalized people,” he said. 

However, in cases where there is faulty or problematic logic, Cook believes exposing the ideas to discussion is the best route to take. 

“I think that the best way for society to progress so that we can disabuse ourselves of old, rigid, archaic thinking is to have those views come out to the open, and let’s challenge them.”

According to Cook, if ideas that deserve change and rejection are a problem, free speech and discussion are the solution. He believes allowing a platform for ideas is where they may fall apart the quickest, unable to withstand debate and opposition.

Overwhelmingly, all of the students The Journal spoke with recognized the importance of free speech, and supported its wider application.

“It’s there to protect [the minority opinion], someone who has a dissenting view or unpopular view, it’s there to protect them so they don’t lose their ability to speak their mind,” Cook said. 

While conservative students prefer an environment in which they are comfortable expressing themselves, they also believe it would improve the overall discussion.

Kyle Hanniman, a Canadian Politics professor at Queen’s, explained the practical value of having diverse ideologies on a university campus.

“I work in an area populated by a lot of right and centre-right thinkers and I can’t imagine how impoverished my thinking would be if I didn’t have these people to challenge [it],” Hanniman told The Journal via email.

Hanniman said, when talking with his right-leaning friend, “I rarely agree with him, but I always learn.”

For Hanniman, it’s unclear if left-leaning students naturally gravitate to university, or change their politics over the course of their education. However, the results are apparent to these conservative students, who may feel their beliefs are assumed.

Molly Helferty, president of QUCA, believes that there’s still work to do in order to get to this more open-minded setting. She said the political environment on campus tends to suggest certain views are unacceptable. 

“When some students and professors make the false assumption that everyone does and should agree with their left-leaning opinions, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is uneducated, immoral or inferior in some way, it can [be] intimidating for conservative students.” 

Helferty points out that while there is clearly a smaller group of students at Queen’s who identify with right-leaning views, there are more that don’t feel comfortable expressing them.

Most likely, she thinks, there are more students who remain silent because of an environment they believe is unwelcoming.

“It isn’t worth [the] social implications if they actually express their conservative opinions,” she said.

Helferty believes creating an enviroment around one perspective narrows the set  of ideas and arguments that students may be exposed to, a crucial facet of the university experience.

“How do you know that you can’t learn anything from these people?” she said.

According to her, disagreeing with general consensus may make some students uncomfortable, and more likely to stay quiet, even in an intellectual environment.

However, the students that spoke to The Journal emphasized that stronger than normal opposition doesn’t dissuade them from speaking their minds. Instead, it makes them more resolute in sharing their opinions.

“I feel more responsibility to actually say what I have to say since other people aren’t,” Helferty said.

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