Welcome to the Thunderdome: A Message to Incoming Conservatives

Written by E. D. Parish

In 2020, and then updated in 2022, the Free Expression and Constructive Dialogue report (FECD report) was released discussing the state of discourse on campus. Unsurprisingly, the report found that many students, and especially many conservative students, reported self-censoring on account of the perceived hostile political environment on campus. The response to such data could be to urge students to be bold, brash, and outspoken in the face of supposed silencing, but this strikes me as myopic. Instead, it strikes me as much better advice to interrogate the processes which led to such a present condition and also encourage students to deftly conform themselves to the present realities of the situation.

Going through the Carolina Review archives, I found a number of articles which attempted to discuss the topic I’d like to explore here. They were often directed to fledgling Carolina conservatives, they acknowledged the obvious left-wing majority on campus, and they urged students to express their beliefs boldly in the name of viewpoint diversity and healthy discourse. Rereading some of these pieces, I find that, on account of their boilerplate nature and failure to appreciate the nuance of the situation, they tend to fall flat. So, rather than berating those who are fearful of the real and daunting threat of losing friends over politics, I’d like to offer some practical advice to those entering this position for the first time. My home county is the most liberal in the state, so I’d like to think I have something fruitful to share on this topic, especially to those entering a liberal area for the first time. 

Rule 1: Know Your Stuff

If you’ve made it this long without forcefully encountering left-wing ideas, I’m surprised but not impressed. For as long as I’ve been politically aware, progressivism has been the water in which I have swum. If that’s not the case for you, I urge you to get acclimated quickly. Subscribe to the New York Times or Washington Post newsletter. Find a podcast or news show with a tolerable host. If you’re really enterprising, you can even read some leftist theory. Get acclimated to the mainstream, lest you drown in it. You should know liberal ideas as well as, if not better than, the average liberal (which shouldn’t be terribly difficult because most liberals, like most conservatives, do not follow politics particularly closely). On the flipside, know your own ideas. You don’t need a perfectly rational political system with answers to every question, but you should be prepared with thoughtful justifications for your beliefs. A disadvantage in numbers can only be compensated for by an advantage in skill. Moreover, being well-informed will be crucial for establishing credibility in discussions. It’s very easy for someone to dismiss Generic Conservative #4; it’s much harder to dismiss that guy who always makes clever points (and also happens to be conservative). Establishing such credibility is absolutely essential to being taken seriously by a person with whom you stand politically opposed. 

Rule 2: Float like a Butterfly

This is what really incited me to write this article. The aforementioned imperatives for right-wing students to express their beliefs went something like, “You’re timid and fearful, and that’s a problem, so what you need to do is be bold and loud!” This is an understandable sentiment, but it makes (at least) one critical tactical error: it urges the underdog to use overdog tactics. Many readers perhaps come from deep red areas, where you can be as in-your-face expressing conservative ideas as you wish. That won’t fly here. If you are a right-winger at UNC, you are an underdog. Behave like one. You’re not one clever gotcha away from watching as the scales fall from your classmates’ eyes. Navigating the university will take ingenuity and tact. 

Niccolo Machiavelli talks about two principles political actors can embody, foxes, who are astute, adaptive, and cunning, and lions, who are direct. Certainly, lion-like behavior comes more naturally to those with conservative dispositions, but I sincerely urge you, so long as you remain in an ideological minority, to make yourself like a fox as I have been describing throughout this article. 

So, what can you do? First of all, don’t lie. The other articles on this subject got one thing right: you shouldn’t compromise your beliefs out of fear. Furthermore, there is no need to bash right-wingers to establish yourself as “one of the good ones.” Looking in a more positive direction, when you’re a dissident, your first goal is to not make yourself into a target. Your job is not to stand up in the middle of your class and shout out some boneheaded Daily Wire talking point. Please don’t do this. You have no business mounting direct attacks. Your goal should be to be some combination of critical and inquisitive. Ask questions. Point out things that don’t make sense. Ask people to consider an issue from a different perspective. This approach, as opposed to direct confrontation a la various political Pit instigators, has a considerable number of virtues: you won’t make yourself into a target, and people will take your ideas more seriously. Perhaps most importantly, you’re not going to change someone’s mind by presenting them with the most rigorous and systematic of deductive proofs. You can’t. You won’t. It doesn’t happen. 

A person’s mind changes slowly and often unconsciously. If you want to change someone’s mind, you can’t force them to do so—you have to invite them. Conveniently, being inviting rather than combative is also a much more virtuous orientation to adopt, even if it is hard to remain patient in the moment. When you present someone with a question they can’t answer or an objection they can’t address, they now have a hole in their seemingly airtight system which they will be interested in filling. Even here, you can’t fill it for them. Give them some reading or listening recommendations. Invite them to consider a solution which had previously been off the table. You’re most likely not going to get someone to agree with you on every issue; instead, it is far more likely that there will be two or three interesting takeaways which they integrate into their worldview. This may sound trifling (it’s not), but if they become more sympathetic to your ideas, then that’s certainly a victory. 

Rule 3: Find Fellow Heretics

Paul Graham’s “What You Can’t Say” is a wonderful little essay on the issues of moral fashion trends, conformity, and heresy. I urge you to read it in full. He begins with a conformity test: “Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?” If you don’t, isn’t that kind of strange? You, and all of your peers, just happened to be lucky enough to stumble across all of the morally correct positions, and these positions just happen to perfectly align with contemporary elite institutions? That’s quite convenient. If you do have such opinions (hopefully this is the audience for this article), these are your heresies. Congratulations! You’re now a heretic. Welcome to the dark side. Let’s have some fun. 

Above we discussed how to express heresies tactfully and subtly in front of large groups or strangers, but sometimes you want to discuss your heresies in a way that is deeper, more thoughtful, and generates new ideas. For this need, Graham recommends that you find “a few friends you can speak openly to.” (Shameless plug: The Carolina Review is always accepting writer applications!) “The people you can say heretical things to without getting jumped on,” he continues, “Are also the most interesting to know.” This isn’t a provocation to only have heretical friends—all the better if you can find orthodox thinkers who will embrace you, heresies and all—but it is a crucial piece of advice for those who haven’t fully accepted hegemonic ideas. 

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