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Strawmen and false equivalences: Why Stanford conservatives don’t seem to understand other people’s arguments

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In this bizarre political landscape we call 2019, fewer and fewer things shock me. But once in a while, I see a contradiction that really leaves me puzzled. You too, dear reader, may find it a bit surprising that the president of the Stanford College Republicans, presumably a sworn enemy of the evil identity politics of the left, published an article about his experience being a low-income conservative of color.

At the outset, I’ll applaud Stephen for publishing his article, because while I disagree with his position and find some of his arguments downright ridiculous, it is true that being a conservative of color must be challenging in ways I cannot imagine. I do not doubt that conservatives of color receive hate, and I expressly condemn the threats of violence that he and his friends have received for their political viewpoints. That is unacceptable, and I do not speak for those threatening violence in any shape or form.

To the argument, now. Broadly, Sills is writing to share his experience as a Marxist-turned-conservative, and arguing that his family heritage is consonant with conservative values. He builds on this to argue that the left is afraid that other people in his position may be exposed to conservative ideas that they happen to agree with, and switch positions just like he did. In this response, I take each of his arguments on, showing that he has simply misunderstood the ideologies he is now strongly opposed to, and is unfairly mischaracterizing the positions of the Left. 

I’ll take on his arguments in the order they appear.

Sills opens his argument with the assertion that conservative groups on campus are all headed by students of color. He claims, “Leftist assumptions about power” cannot account for people like him existing. He seems to be pitting a narrative of the left, that people from marginalized backgrounds resembling his are oppressed by conservative-backed power structures, against the fact of his own conservativism.

This argument is quite ridiculous. You will find few people on the left who argue that people like Sills cannot exist. Sills is missing the connection between the individual and the system, which will be a recurring theme in this piece. The argument he is misunderstanding asserts that, as a result of historical and present policies, many communities remain marginalized by socioeconomic power structures, and find themselves underrepresented in mainstream political discourse.

This is not an argument that specific people who are connected to these communities must share this political position — rather, it is an argument that those communities will, in general, suffer under conservative policies.

It doesn’t take much to see why this is a reasonable position — Trump routinely dehumanizes Latino people, calling them murderers, rapists and drug dealers. Republican-instituted abortion bans disproportionately affect women of color. Voter ID laws target Black voters. Republican economic policy systematically favors the rich, while Black Americans remain much poorer than others on average.

In particular, the left is arguing that people of Chinese and Mexican heritage, in general, suffered injustices which continue to affect their communities today.

In short, Sills has attacked the strawman position that discrimination against people of color in American automatically makes them all liberals. He has misunderstood the argument about power structures made by the left, which only says that communities like his will suffer under conservative policies — it does not say that people like him will be able to recognize that.

Moving on, Sills shares how his conservativism is informed by his family background, via his Chinese grandfather and Mexican grandmother. He was skeptical of Marxism because his grandfather was persecuted in communist China, and was skeptical of systemic racism because he thinks gang violence is the real culprit. Neither of these claims hold much water, and his skepticism is based on an incredibly superficial understanding of the topics involved.

To belabor a distinction which is hopefully obvious to most readers, nobody on the modern left is advocating for Maoism. Policies which may be broadly inspired by a socialist mindset, such as universal healthcare, free education, a living minimum wage, housing justice and so on, are very different from the policies of communist China. Notice that nowhere in Bernie Sanders’s speeches does he advocate for a one-party dictatorship or forced agricultural collectivization. If Sills’s grandfather had escaped persecution from socialist Norway, this argument might make some sense, but as it stands it is just another ridiculous strawman.

Further, let’s take the laughable claim that systemic racism does not exist, and it is really gang violence that holds back communities of color. Notice the implicit racist assumption here — it is the fault of communities of color that they are where they are, and if only they could be as civilized as white people and stop participating in gang violence, they too could rise up. One needn’t dig too deep to find evidence that this claim is ridiculous. The effects of historically racist policies are highly visible today. Redlining denied investments to people of color in postwar America, and the segregation this produced can be seen in modern maps. Racially biased policing disproportionately pulls over and incarcerates Black and Latino people. I could go on and on, but I’ll just refer the reader to this excellent video series that explains systemic racism in great depth.

Notice again that Sills has failed to provide any kind of argument or justification. While the lived experience of his family is a valid source of information, to infer that the existence of gang violence precludes the existence of systemic racism is a massive and unsubstantiated logical leap.

A closing note on this section of his argument: Sills takes issue with people teaching him to “hate an abstract oppressor [he] had never met.” This is quite clearly displaying his lack of understanding of issues at a systemic level. The British have been gone from India for 70 years, but the deindustrialization they carried out is still responsible for the poverty of hundreds of millions of people. Sills is making the ridiculous claim that oppression becomes legitimate only after you come face to face with an oppressor.

Sills proceeds to talk about his own experience going to a Ben Shapiro talk, and finding himself agreeing with the principle that “diversity of ideas [is] more valuable than diversity of skin color.” This is a naked false dichotomy, and his acceptance of Shapiro’s claim on face value demonstrates a lack of critical engagement with ideas in general. I will outline three different ways in which this claim is misleading.

First, neither Sills nor Shapiro investigates whether we need to choose between one or the other. It is an inescapable fact that, at least to some extent, people’s ideas and perspectives are shaped by their lived experience and identity. You will not get a truly diverse sampling of ideas without a diverse sampling of people to supply those ideas. A diversity of people is perfectly complementary and consistent with a diversity of ideas.

(As an aside, notice that we are frustratingly close to some self-awareness issues: Sills draws upon his experience of his family’s Chinese-Mexican heritage to lend credence to his argument, and present a fresh and valuable perspective. Or, one might say, diversity of people has increased the diversity of ideas. Sills would do well to check the consistency of his own arguments.)

Second, there is yet another implicitly bigoted assumption baked in. Sills’s implication that there must be a tradeoff between diversity of skin color and diversity of ideas is just a not-so-subtle way of defending the status quo of elites. I would not be surprised if Sills is perfectly happy with corporate boards being controlled by white men, that less than a quarter of US Senators and Representatives are women, or that 25 white men voted to ban abortion in Alabama. He would be happy with these statistics because he doesn’t see anything of value in the perspectives of minorities or of women, and has complete faith in the dominant elites to act benevolently. Forgive me for not partaking in this fantasy, but I believe that we should listen to those who have suffered racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia or discrimination in general. Believe it or not, this means that we should listen to the unique perspectives of conservatives of color, and to me, that means diversifying the overwhelmingly white Republican Party. That means fighting racism as a bipartisan issue, by opposing racists like Steve King, opposing the branding of African countries as shitholes and not calling white nationalists “very fine people.” I applaud the news that Sills shares about conservatives of color leading organizations like SCR and TPUSA, and I hope they will push for similar changes at the top.

Thirdly and most crucially, the false dichotomy of ideas versus skin color is yet another strawman of the left’s principles of inclusion. Sills seems to think that all the left wants is ideas from people of color, with no regard to what the ideas actually are. This is the most fundamental mischaracterization involving this statement —  Sills is accusing the left of only wanting token representation. This is categorically ridiculous, and demonstrates a lack of nuance (again). The left is well aware that individual people of color can be in positions of power, but espouse ideas that are contrary to the upliftment of people of color. Look no further than the bigots SCR has invited to our campus. Dinesh D’Souza, a man of Indian origin, wants to repeal the Civil Rights Act and defended slavery and segregation. Ben Shapiro, a Jewish man, has supported the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. The left is concerned with the elevation of particular human beings from communities of color, but also with the elevation of the voices of those communities.

To explain this simply, the left wants to elevate people of color, as well as the interests of communities of color. To some extent, these two goals are complementary, but they do not have to always coincide. Bernie Sanders does not have to be Latino to fight for the rights of Latinos, and conversely, just because Candace Owens has a platform, does not mean she is fighting for Black people.

Finally, let me take on Sills’s particular points regarding the hosting of Ben Shapiro. Sills opens with a weak attempt at dramatization that reads like a Buzzfeed headline — “this is why the Left is so absolutely terrified by [Ben Shapiro]” — but actually makes some very dangerous and misleading claims.

First, he claims that community spaces were “walling themselves off” to “prevent other students from hearing conservative views.” (Note that, without a trace of irony, he writes in the same article about “rejecting the artifices of victimhood.”) Contrary to what Sills may believe, students of color actually leave the dorms, just like everyone else. We go to classes and dining halls, and are quite capable of reading the banners in White Plaza, chalk on the road and posters on noticeboards. Additionally, we have access to the news, including the extensive Stanford Daily coverage of the build-up to the event. To top it all off, many students, led by those from the “walled off” community spaces, organized a protest rally outside the event.

I think it would be quite obviously safe to say that everyone was well aware of the existence of the event. Nobody was “walled off” in any sense of the word — students of color were well aware of the event, and if they desired to hear conservative views, as I’m sure many of them did, nobody barred them from entering the event. 

Sills goes on to assert that liberal students are actually just afraid of “hearing something they might actually agree with.” This is a completely unsubstantiated and disrespectful claim to make about a large group of people. Sills sneaks in the assumption that all liberals on campus are like ostriches with their heads buried in sand, and if only they considered his view, its pure intellectual superiority would immediately change their mind. Sills does not attempt to make the good-faith assumption that those who oppose his views have actually considered both sides, and come to their opinions after thoughtful reasoning.

In short, Sills thinks that everyone else is just as ignorant as he is. Just as his understanding of Marxism ends at persecution in China, and his understanding of oppression ends six inches from his nose, Sills thinks nobody has any idea what conservativism is. 

On behalf of liberals on campus, let me communicate this basic fact to Sills: we’re well aware of who Ben Shapiro is and what he stands for. We protest not to prevent people from becoming aware of his ideology, but to demonstrate our opposition to his hateful rhetoric.

Let us examine the overall point Sills makes. Through a complete misunderstanding of the ideas he was exposed to, he has equated modern liberalism with Maoism, arguing that Marxism is bad because Communist China persecuted people. He has failed to understand systematic oppression, arguing that those he has never met could never have oppressed him. Finally, having refused to critically engage with the false dichotomy of diverse ideas versus diverse people, he drew upon his own diverse heritage to justify his support for conservativism. To top it off, he thoroughly mischaracterized on-campus opposition to hateful speakers.

Aside from the logical fallacies, false assumptions, and unsubstantiated leaps Sills has made, there is one overall note I would like to leave you with. Sills is the president of SCR, which has made free discourse on campus a fig leaf behind which to hide arguments of the caliber Sills has just made. Behind their persistent bluster about wanting to have open debates, SCR relentlessly mischaracterize the arguments of their opposition, and make bad-faith claims like Sills has done throughout his article.

I’ll address this final point to all of SCR, then — if you wish to truly get into good debates about politics on campus, try actually engaging with people, and not strawmen.

Contact Rayan Sud at rayansud ‘at’ stanford.edu.