The Merciless Debate Society, an unofficial discussion group based in Coles Tower, is dedicated to President Clayton Rose’s often-mentioned principle of “intellectual fearlessness.” The students of this group hope to “mercilessly” confront and debate topics that they believe are often ignored on campus.
A typical evening involves three 10-minute debates on hot-button political topics, and all are welcome.
Peter Slovenski, head track coach and co-author of “Old School America,” formed the debate society last semester with help from athletes on his team. A Bowdoin coach for more than 30 years, Slovenski remembers an era when athletes would gather outside his office door and debate policy while they iced after practice. There was no prompt or encouragement; debate was a natural byproduct of conversations and students were eager to share their opinions. But in the last two decades, according to Slovenski, freeform, controversial discussions have gradually disappeared from campus.
Facilitated debates, such as More than Meets the Eye and What Matters, encourage debate in creative ways, yet some students, namely conservatives, say they are reluctant to speak out and share their views. As a result, some students searched for a space where they could feel more comfortable speaking up.
“Whenever something [is led by] the institution, people tend to be more careful about what they say,” said Symone Marie Holloway ’22. “There [have] definitely been times where I’ve been offended by something said in the society, but that’s a fair opinion and they’re entitled to it. Nobody’s saying let’s specifically talk about [a topic] in this way.”
With faculty donations in the 2018 election going only to liberal campaigns, some members of the Bowdoin community feel there is a left-leaning bias. While conservative speakers sometimes visit campus and some professors are known for more conservative views, Slovenski believes these stalwart few cannot be expected to be the sole champions of opposing thought.
“I think colleges have created [a] division in our country because they have taken sides on every big issue, and the side they always take is the same side as the Democratic Party,” wrote Slovenski in an email to the Orient. “Colleges are not supposed to take sides; they are supposed to be the unbiased referees of our cultural debates and culture war. No one party has all the right answers, but you wouldn’t know that by going through freshman orientation at college.”
The Merciless Debate Society tries not to take a side, encouraging students from across the political spectrum to air their views.
“I think most people are not on the left of everything or not on the right of everything. But it seems like when you’re looking at issues you kind of just tend to match up with the liberal or conservative side,” said Katja Grumman ’20. “But if you are able to accept ideas based on their logic [instead of] instinctively gravitating toward whatever side you’re on, I think that most people are a mix of both sides.”
Past debate topics, chosen by Slovenski, include NFL players kneeling for the anthem, toxic masculinity and capital punishment. In each debate, Slovenski introduces the topic, then offers it to the dozen students gathered around the table for debate. According to Holloway, the group has never seen more than 15 people at a meeting. The debate tends to lean conservative, as the “regular” students tend to lean right politically.
“When I first went, it was definitely heavily conservative. I still think, among the regular members, it remains that way,” said Grumman. “It’s definitely where I found that the most independent-minded people.”
One student, after attending one of the meetings, vowed never to return, citing racist rhetoric in a discussion about students’ success in school. The group acknowledges the tension that can surround some opinions being voiced, but most believe the invigorated and lively debate adds to the groups understanding of complex problems.
If conversation stalls between the opposing sides, Slovenski might ask “how does the other side see this argument? What compromise can be made?” But with only 10 minutes to debate each topic, there is not enough time to draw final conclusions. The quick nature of the event allows space for these few conservative and liberal views to be voiced, but usually ends without extended discussion or a “winner.”
“The points that I remember most are the ones [where] we’re able to create a good dialogue and I [can] leave with more information or a change of opinion,” Holloway said. “[But] every time I leave, I find new possibilities for an argument.”