President of the Knox Conservatives club (KC) and sophomore Rae Sullivan considered the club’s “Change my Mind” discussion event successful beyond their hopes. The event was held in Seymour gallery on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, presenting the viewpoints “Borders are Moral” and “Abortion is Wrong” for discussion.
“It was really to start a dialogue on campus and kind of expose the students to what we thought would be a fair and open discussion with people who might disagree with each other, but at the same time see where everyone comes from,” sophomore and Vice President of the KC club Adam Ryan said. “Some people might’ve changed their minds but that wasn’t the actual goal.”
During the event, clusters of students stood or sat around the KC club table, talking with or listening to members of the KC club.
Though the topics were phrased as viewpoint stances, Ryan and Sullivan both emphasized that the goal of the event was to listen to other people’s perspectives rather than make their own comments.
“It was our Vice President’s suggestion and our advisor [Deb Marty] supported that we really focused on making this a Socratic dialogue …,” Sullivan said. “So that it wasn’t a debate, we didn’t approach this at all as a debate, but as a place to find areas of agreement and to think about the other side’s position.”
Sullivan and Ryan met outside the club to produce possible discussion topics that the club believed were true — and that people at Knox might disagree with but would still be willing to talk about. Sullivan wanted topics that would be provocative enough that they prompted dialogue, but not too provocative that it would be unlikely to have a productive conversation and find common ground. Some topics that were discarded included “Hate Speech is Free Speech,” “My Labor is My Own” and “Socialism is Not Moral.”
“If we just put up something like ‘Water Filtration Needs to be Improved in the U.S.’ not many people are going to be very passionate about that … the point is to be a little bit controversial in order for people to show up,” Ryan said.
Members of the KC club rehearsed responding to predicted statements with a person outside of the club to practice discussing in a civil and polite manner. KC club members also researched their topics and brought information from the CDC and Census data.
Ryan pitched the idea during a KC club meeting to model the event off of Steven Crowder’s popular YouTube videos. Crowder is a conservative political commentator who has conducted “Change My Mind” discussions at college campuses in the past — including topics such as, “Build the Wall,” “‘Rape Culture’ is a Myth” and “America is Superior (to All Other Countries).”
In line with the Crowder format, the event in Seymour gallery was filmed. Sullivan mentioned that the decision was made out of concerns that people might try to escalate the discussions, and to hold the KC members accountable if they did not remain respectful. Sullivan noted that the office of Campus Life approved the filming of the event after the KC club assured the cameras were to be pointed inward at the KC club members, not at the crowd.
While students engaged with the KC club, the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) occupied a table of their own further down the gallery. Junior and Co-Chair of YDSA Soleil Smith voiced support for the KC club’s expression of free speech, but was concerned by the “Change my Mind” format and its association to Crowder, who she described as a white nationalist.
“I mean I don’t think it would be very fair of us to make events that were inspired by people that harm people that are conservatives or are on the far-right … because that’s not our purpose and I don’t think that’s the Knox Conservative’s purpose,” Smith said.
As a result of the KC club using Crowder as an inspiration, Smith, and peer Co-Chair of YDSA sophomore Matt Milewski believed the event was held in bad faith. Milewski considers Crowder to be a bigot who films his “Change My Mind” segments in public places in order to stir controversy.
“I think that the tone of it can’t be sort of coercive — into a very oppositional setting. You can’t have a good dialogue starting off with — ‘Hey you, come here, fight me on this topic.’ That’s not a good beginning. I don’t think it should be in such a blatantly public area, ” Milewski said.
However, Sullivan was unconcerned about using Crowder as an inspiration for the KC club event as long as members of the club did not act disrespectfully in a way Crowder has been known to in the past.
“That wasn’t really a concern for us because we don’t have a problem with people expressing controversial views and we don’t have a problem with agreeing with someone on some topics and disagreeing on another,” Sullivan said.
Before the first KC club discussion was held, members of the club put up posters advertising the event throughout the school. Sullivan said this was to both raise awareness of the event and allow people to avoid the event if they did not want to engage with it.
A friend of Smith sent her a picture of one of the KC club posters which was taped using three stickers with the letter “K.” These “K” stickers are one variation of similar stickers which display other letters, used for categorizing folders alphabetically. Sullivan was present when the KC club poster with the three “K”’s was put up by another club member.
“[The letter ‘K’ was chosen] for Knox, I remember asking. We had run out of tape. There was like, several letters, and he was like, ‘Oh Knox’ — and I was like, ‘Oh good idea,’” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the three “K” stickers were not chosen to signify any representation of the KKK.
“That didn’t occur to me. That’s an unfortunate misunderstanding, really. Knox Conservatives categorically rejects every belief of the KKK. We are very much opposed to them,” Sullivan said.
YDSA has also held events aimed at providing civil discourse and engaging with the views of the student body, such as the “Socialize With a Socialist” event earlier this term. However, YDSA held this event in Post Lobby to allow people to opt in or out of discussion, and feel as comfortable as possible in approaching the dialogue. Smith considered it unproductive to the purpose of respectful dialogue for the KC club to advertise their stances on topics such as borders and abortion in the populated space of Seymour gallery, where students who may have struggled with those specific topics might encounter the “Change My Mind” event.
“I don’t really think that [the “Change My Mind” format] creates a sense of respect and safety.” Smith said. “… I think it should be the number one goal of any political organization or activist group to make sure that the people they’re interacting with feel comfortable.”
While on the other hand, Sullivan was not as concerned about people being uncomfortable.
“I think that is OK for people to feel uncomfortable when they see a view that is different from theirs, even one that they find important. And I think that is something conservatives on campus encounter often,” Sullivan said. “We are most often presented with a liberal point of view at college classes and events — and where we have to confront being uncomfortable and sort of get used to that and get over it and sort of begin the conversation.”