How to Survive Campus Politics

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If you’ve been awake during the last decade, you’ve noticed that campus politics have gotten really ugly. In fact, on many campuses, things are so downright vicious that it’s taking a toll on many students’ enjoyment of college, their peace of mind, their friendships and even their overall mental health.

College campuses have always had their share of activists and protestors, but matters have definitely intensified dramatically in recent years. Increasingly, campus politics have adopted an aggressive, in-your-face style that is making it difficult for ordinary students who merely want to mind their own business to get through a typical day without being drawn into or subjected to an unwanted confrontation. Usually, the person instigating the “discussion” has very strong opinions on the topic and an even stronger interest in seeing to it that you agree with them, regardless of your actual feelings.

As if college isn’t already hard enough and tuition isn’t high enough, today’s students now also have to navigate this irritating minefield of strident and opinionated classmates — and sometimes even professors, who should know better — who seek to engage bystanders in a purported “dialogue” that usually winds up being more of a monologue, and that always seems to come with a predictable, predetermined conclusion. Every meal, walk to class, or coffee break can easily transform into an unwanted argument in a matter of seconds.

Most college students are not overly political animals. Your typical undergraduate just wants to get an education and graduate on time and hopefully make some good friends and have a decent amount of fun in the process. That’s not too much to ask, right?

Unfortunately, you are going to get sidetracked and run into unpleasantness if you engage too much with the current, virulent strain of modern campus politics. If you do, you are likely to wind up confused, delayed, angry, and possibly friendless or, worse, false-friended. Who’s got time for that?

Winston Churchill put it this way: “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”

The purpose of this article, then, isn’t to tell you the “right” way to think about any particular hot button issue (and even if you could resolve one, there’s always another new cause du jour right around the corner, since the half-life of a campus craze is about two weeks.) No, my goal here is to equip you with some rhetorical tools to navigate this brutal, unpleasant minefield and come out with your degree, your integrity, your friendships and your sanity semi-intact, and hopefully without getting “bitten” in the process.

I’d like to think you can keep your friends and keep your views in college, but in order to do so, you’re going to have to develop the ability to sidestep quicksand. So without further ado, let’s review some simple guidelines and basic communication skills you can deploy to help you handle virtually any controversial discussion you find yourself drawn into, willingly or unwillingly. This way, you’ll be pre-armed with some defensive arrows in your rhetorical quiver.

arrows in quiver

HAZARD: A controversial topic is introduced into conversation.

RESPONSE: Proceed with caution. It could just be bait.

These days, almost any topic can turn political in a flash, but the biggest argument-starting issues in higher education tend to revolve around three predictably recurrent topics: Race, Class and Gender… over and over and over, ad nauseum.

Test the waters very carefully before entering this type of conversation on any but the most superficial level; it’s probably a trap. It’s probable that the person starting this type of discussion, for whatever reason, is not genuinely interested in your view and will try to twist your words against you. Who needs this? It’s a total energy-waster if there ever was one.

Before sharing any of your personal views on a controversial topic, ask yourself: Is this someone I trust? If so, you may want to attempt to share your true feelings to see how that goes. If not, or if you are not sure, then you will want to be more guarded and only say things that sound tentative or noncommittal. Here’s a list of vague, pointless statements to utter, to try to nip this type of go-nowhere conversation in the bud:

Vague, Noncommittal Comments for a Potentially Dicey Conversation

  • “I’m not sure.”
  • “Hmm…that’s an interesting topic.”
  • “What do you think?”
  • “That’s been getting a lot of attention lately, huh?”
  • “I might have to give that some thought.”
  • “Gee, I don’t know.”
  • “Ahh. Hmmm. Uh huh.” (In counseling, this is called, “empathic grunting.” These noises mean nothing, but sound like you’re agreeing, so they are unlikely to cause offense or raise hackles.)
  • Silence. (Just let them keep talking and silently count how long they can keep it up to amuse yourself until they wear themselves out.)

If things start getting emotional, heated or aggressive, you could try to shut the conversation down with a:

Deflecting or Blocking Technique:

  • Look for a chance to change the subject.
  • Say, “Oh, I’m sorry, but I don’t like talking about politics.”
  • “I don’t know much about this.”
  • “I don’t know anything about politics.”
  • “Politics are boring.” (Then change the subject)
  • “Not that again! We just discussed this yesterday/ in class, [wherever].”
  • Try to make a light joke of it, to defuse the tension. Introduce a new topic.

Deflection techniques are the essence of basic martial arts self-defense. You could call it verbal judo, which is a very apt name for a “conversation” that is really a disguised attempt to attack you or start a fight.

Maybe you feel like this might be a fair conversation, so you’re going to take a stab at discussing your sincere opinion (which probably isn’t even well-formed, since you’re still in college) publicly. If so, you’ll want to phrase things carefully, so that you can gracefully back out, if the other person does not receive opposing opinions well.

Ways to delicately bring up an opposing view in a Dicey Conversation:

  • “Have you considered…?”
  • “It’s been suggested that…”
  • “Some people say…”
  • “Not everyone agrees; for instance, so-and-so thinks…”
  • “I read an article with a different view. The author said…”

Basically, if you want to challenge any of their views (not recommended with people you don’t trust), then attribute your ideas to someone else or to some passive non-identifiable “other,” to avoid giving the other person the chance to attack you personally. This also gives you a “safe” chance to observe how they react to opposing ideas and thoughts.

If you do dare to offer a strong personal opinion on a controversial topic, carefully monitor the responses of the other person(s) to see if you and your views are going to be treated with respect and politeness…or not. If they are, then great! You’re having a real, adult, intellectual conversation! Congratulations! This is what college is supposed to be like.

If not, however, and they respond with aggression, sarcasm, derision, etc., you are unfortunately dealing with an intellectual lightweight as well as a child, or a bully, or both. Keep reading for ideas on how to disengage from this petulant jerk, because you definitely have better things to do with your time than tangle with the dumb and ruthless.

HAZARD: Your comment is NOT received with basic civility.

RESPONSE: Withdraw (Recommended) or Double-Down (Not Recommended in most cases).

At this point, you’re dealing with a real pill. A “conversation,” by definition, goes two ways. If it begins to become a unilateral harangue and your views are met with condemnation, etc. it’s probably time to end it.

If you’re not quite ready to pull the plug on this dismal excuse for a conversation, yet, you can step the empathic grunting up a notch with some of these bland non-committal-type statements that work well with pushy people. They have the benefit of being subversively sarcastic and double entendre-ish, for your own amusement, which can help to compensate you for all the negative energy you’re confronting here.

Non-agreement statements to placate and mollify the aggressive:

  • “I see.” (that you’re an obnoxious jerk)
  • “I see what you’re saying.” (obviously. Because you just said it.)
  • “Uh huh.”
  • “Yes. Yes.” (Yes, you are an insufferable toad.)
  • “I hear you.” (Because you make a sound, not sense.)
  • “My!”
  • “You don’t say. You don’t say.” (But you keep on saying. Ugh.)
  • “Indeed.”
  • “Got it.”
  • “Oh really?”
  • Just nod a lot.
  • “OK.”
  • “Mmm. Good point.” (Not.)
  • “Oh.” (best uttered with very little enthusiasm)
  • “Oh?” (with skepticism and a tilted head)
  • “You may have a point there.” (But you don’t)
  • “I didn’t know that.” (And I still don’t, because it’s idiotic.)
  • “That’s interesting.” (Not.)
  • “Ah.”
  • “That’s an interesting point.” (not really. Please go away.)
  • “I’m not sure I agree with you, but you’ve given me something to think about.” (and laugh about later.)
  • “Thank you for telling me that.” (because now I know to avoid you in the future!)
  • Silence (plus the death stare, or practice letting your eyes go vacant and glaze over. Can you make the person go completely out of focus? Good…you’re getting there. Sometimes letting a jerk wag their gums until they wear out is the fastest means of escape.)

These neutral non-statements are vague and pointless with a purpose. None of them constitute actual agreement, but they are generally perceived like agreement, so the offending party is unlikely to escalate. They also do very little to feed the offending person with reinforcing emotional energy. Keep it dull and boring and repetitive, and hopefully they will go off in search of someone else from whom they can extract a higher emotional toll.

Please don’t say out loud any of the things written in parentheses. If you do, you’re asking for it. That is merely for your mental amusement and to counteract the spite a toxic person spews until you can beat a hasty retreat and recover from the onslaught.

That being said, there’s only so much you can and should endure. Taking it to the next level, here are some,

Examples of Rudeness that should be considered Instant Conversation-Enders:

  • Personal Insults
  • Name calling, including any that end in -ist or -phobe (very fashionable these days)
  • Acts of Condescension
  • Derision
  • Disdainful Remarks
  • Cursing at you
  • Loaded Sarcasm
  • Personal Ridicule
  • Personal attacks
  • Telling you to “Be Quiet!” or, worse, “Shut up!”
  • Eye rolling or other degrading expressions
  • Rude noises or scoffing sounds aimed at you or your comments
  • Attempts at intimidation, such as ganging up on you, raising their voice, shouting at you, crowding you, towering over you, or pointing their finger aggressively in your face.

You don’t have to put up with this kind of behavior, ever, and you shouldn’t. You have a couple of choices here that ultimately boil down to Basic Fight or Flight. Flight is always preferable to Fight, since it conserves your precious energy. So, you could just end the conversation immediately and withdraw. Why not? It’s not productive and becoming abusive. Here are,

Some ways to Halt an unpleasant conversation:

  • Just turn and walk away without saying anything (Best used with strangers.)
  • Say “Excuse Me” and turn and walk away with no other explanation.
  • Make up a phony excuse to leave.
  • Say, “Great talking with you. Thanks! I learned a lot.” Leave.
  • Simply say, “I’ve gotta go” and walk away.
  • Look at the time and say, “I’m late. Bye” and walk away.
  • Point to someone else and say, “Oh Look! It’s [whoever!]” and head in their direction.
  • Say, “OK. Time to go! Have a nice day.”
  • Say, “Whoops! My phone is ringing!” [Even if it isn’t. Who cares.] Wave it around and say, “Gotta take this!”
  • “I have to run. I’m late for [class. The dentist. The proctologist. ANYTHING.]”

Higher Risk: Confront the bad behavior.

If you’re up for it, and sufficiently annoyed that you want to deplete precious emotional energy on this, you could confront their bad behavior. Warning: As tempting as it may be, DO NOT–repeat, DO NOT yield to the strong temptation to insult them back (unless you want to permanently end the relationship…which you might.)

When you adopt their bad behavior, they’ve just dragged you down to their level, which implies that you were at a higher level before, but now you’re not. Stay calm and stay classy; you’re dealing with very childish behavior here, so the appropriate demeanor to adopt would be like a parent patiently but firmly schooling a naughty toddler.

Confronting means to name precisely the behavior they just did that you find unacceptable. That’s all. They get to choose how to respond to this information. I don’t really recommend this with a highly aggressive person, because they could fly off the handle completely and it’s hard to predict what such a person might do, but if you want to confront, here is what it would sound like,

Some ways to confront bad conversational behavior:

  • “I see no need to raise your voice.”
  • “Please stop yelling at me.
  • “I don’t like being called names. There. You did it again.”
  • “You’re insulting me. I wouldn’t treat you that way.”
  • “You’re making fun of me. That’s very unkind.”
  • “You’re rolling your eyes at me when I speak. I don’t appreciate that.”
  • “You seem a little aggressive right now.”

Did they apologize or at least adjust their tone? If yes, then this conversation and relationship may yet survive. If not, then they have violated Good Faith and you should feel justified in terminating the discussion swiftly, and you might have to consider ending the relationship, immediately or eventually, if they can’t manage to treat you decently when they get worked up over something. That’s kind of one of the most basic aspects of a relationship, after all. It depends on how much you value the relationship you have with this person.

Extremely High Risk: Fight Back and Double-Down.

The other person is not backing down and you still want to continue this conversation? You really want to take on a rabid Social Justice Warrior?

Before you do, ask yourself how vicious this person actually is and if it’s worth your time and energy to take them on when they’re worked up. Most likely, the answer will be no. If you value your relationship with this person at all, then it’s almost always best simply to withdraw from such a pointless encounter, while keeping your personal views private. Don’t subject yourself, or your well-considered views, to mistreatment.

If you don’t value your relationship with this person, then why would you bother taking the time to argue with them? As the bumper sticker says, Mean People Suck. They really do. Don’t let them suck you into their miserable black hole of negative energy.

Remember what Winston Churchill said about getting distracted from your path; fighting back certainly isn’t for the fainthearted. Do you really want to go head-to-head with an angry Doberman? What for?

As they like to say Down South: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both wind up dirty, and the pig enjoys it.”

dirty pig

Or, if you prefer literary advice to homespun wisdom, how about Shakepeare’s thoughts on the subject: “Give thy thoughts no tongue…Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice/Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.” (Polonius to Laertes, Hamlet Act 1, Scene 3.)

Self-help guru Dale Carnegie advised that, “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.” (How to Win Friends and Influence People)

And don’t forget that Jesus warned, “Do not throw your pearls before swine. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6.)

Remember why you are in college: to finish your degree–not to get sidetracked into jumping down psychedelic crazy-making rabbit holes.

Still not convinced? OK, well, if you insist on entering this sticky quagmire, you had better have done your homework and be heavily armed with ready facts, based on your own independent research. Don’t walk in unarmed; this person has already shown implacable viciousness, so come prepared for battle. As Polonius also warned in Hamlet, “Beware of entrance into a quarrel, but being in/Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee!!” (The double exclamations points are mine.)

If you’re not prepared to win, it’s best to withdraw for the time being, recoup and regroup, and live to argue better another day. This is especially true if you are hopelessly outnumbered by a unified group who all seem to share the same strong, inflexible political opinion. Logic will not make any impact in that situation. That is not a fair fight. That’s an ambush.

You have every right to refuse to engage in conversations with people who behave ferociously. The sooner you learn this, and how to defend your own psychological space, the better off you will be in life. You have a duty and a right to protect yourself from people who would willingly mistreat you.

If you feel strongly about your views but cannot discuss these topics with your acquaintances (I hesitate to call such acquaintances friends) without their lapsing into impolite, boorish behavior, then I suggest you stick to safe topics around them and join a self-identified political group that can be welcoming, accepting and affirming of the full range of your developing thoughts and views. Save your sincere opinions for people who are kind and respectful.

Generally speaking, these days, it’s not worth getting drawn into emotional arguments on political topics, given the current overwrought and intolerant climate. Resolve to keep your head down and stay focused on earning your degree while deflecting attempts to bait you into depleting, pointless, and time-consuming arguments.

If you follow these tips, you will find that is still possible to keep your friends AND keep your views in college, as long as you keep some of your views to yourself, strategically.

illegitimi non carborundum