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Free thinkers in a world of -isms

Last night, I had a dinner with two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent. I, a Republican, was hosting a dinner for Nick Eberstadt, a Democrat, after Dr. Eberstadt’s panel discussion at the Hoover Institution on China had concluded. Dr. Eberstadt is an expert on Chinese and North Korean domestic and foreign policy, and we utilized this expertise to guide our discussion topics. The six dinner attendees all walked away with a better understanding of ourselves and of differing political opinions on American foreign policy. What elements made this conversation happen the way it did?

I spent some time thinking about this and came to a couple conclusions. First, we had an elder at the table who was respected by each attendee for his accumulated wisdom. Second, the conversation was not bogged down by -isms. What I mean by that was that intellectual growth was the end goal, not confusing the argument by propagating a particular -ism.

Today, deference to elders, and thus a respect for accumulated wisdom, is at a distinct low point in American life. One only needs to reflect on the disillusionment of university humanities departments regarding key books of the Western canon (in order to focus on the superficially trendy) to grasp the damage wrought at an institutional level. On the individual level, there are further problems. Familial alienation at the generational level due to political beliefs is not a new phenomenon, but certainly more common than one would hope when we take the time to reflect on the families in our own lives. Second, a scathing and popular resentment of our national history has almost never been stronger. Across the country, we can see a weakening of what Edmund Burke described as the social contract between the generations. Young adults today rely less and less on the experience of their parents to describe challenges which may appear new on the surface, but are rooted historical trends. However, at least last night, this trend was absent. All of us at the dinner understood the decades of experience and work that Dr. Eberstadt had invested into the study of North Korea and China. Therefore, when he spoke, we listened even more intently than we did to our fellow students. Everyone at the dinner respected Dr. Eberstadt’s wisdom, gained through age and hard work, and we were better off for it.

As of late, there has been a proliferation of dogmatic -isms on both the right and the left. Rhetorically, the -ism serves to codify a certain issue group into an often binary divide. Either you are for, or against, a given -ism when your beliefs are labeled with this suffix. At the dinner there were a variety of -isms that one or another of the attendees either supported or derided. And that is perfectly okay. The discussion revolved around the theme of our own intellectual growth and expansion, not victory and refutation. My use of the “-ism” example may seem trite, but if you think about the chilling effect -isms have had on current political discourse, you understand how refreshing it is to not be held back by them in intellectual conversation.

Stanford has given me immense opportunity to grow and expand my intellect and principles beyond what I expected I could. However, I have run into many scenarios where an underlying momentum was pointed in one definite political direction. Overwhelmingly, and with few exceptions, that direction was to the Left. Nonetheless, a few of my closest friends I have come to know at Stanford certainly disagree with many if not most of my political positions. And these friends of mine on the Left probably agree with 70 percent of the Stanford student body on most issues. But rare indeed is the student at Stanford who can both respect wisdom and think beyond -isms at all times. Thankfully, I’m glad to call many of them my friends. As we discuss politics from now on, let’s do a better job of acting like the free thinkers that live within us.

Contact Max Minshull at mminshul ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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