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New group promotes discussion across political spectrum

February 22, 2019

Reuben Schafir
DEBATE AND DASH: The Merciless Debate Society’s quick, 10-minute debates happen in a flash, but provide students, like Jack Moynihan ’19 (pictured center), to engage in a spectrum of political discussion.

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.”


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  1. Alex Linhart '06 says:

    Seems like a great idea. I wish we had this when I was at Bowdoin! – Alex Linhart ’06

  2. Casey Kelley Ellis says:

    I LOVE this idea! As a Bowdoin alum (Class of ‘02), this sounds like a great addition to the student activities on campus. It’s important there be a place & opportunity for all students to voice their opinions, and still be able to disagree with one another. Part of life after Bowdoin is learning to work with people who don’t always share your opinions, being able to have uncomfortable discussions, and move forward. I hope that students across the political spectrum will join in the debates! (I also like that the time commitment is small for these SUPER busy students!)

  3. Cheryl McKenna says:

    The Merciless Debate Society sounds like a wonderful way for people to express their views / opinions openly. In order to make a decision you need to be able to hear both sides and now a day that can be difficult.
    I’m glad a platform is available to these students. Thank you Coach …..great job giving them an opportunity to express themselves!

  4. Seamus Power says:

    This is what Liberal Arts colleges should be all about! Learning how to talk with others who don’t share your opinion is a great experience. Unfortunately, the lack of political diversity from professors on campus limits these conversations from happening organically in the classroom. Any opportunity to talk and share with others on campus should be encouraged. I wish this group was around when I was at Bowdoin, but I’m proud to be a track alumn!

    Go U Bears!
    Seamus Power (2016)

  5. Scot M 09' says:

    Encouraging debate in as many formats/venues as possible seems central to a college like Bowdoin’s mission. As one of the students in the article suggested, people are not always consistently on the left or right of every single issue. After all the most inspiring politician of my generation, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, helped fight against the billions of dollars in subsidies that were being handed out to Amazon in NYC. This type of corporate welfare has defined both major parties, but it’s the conservatives in favor of small government or libertarians who see the harm such a policy would cause towards smaller startups without those advantages that have the clearest reason to oppose it. And yet it was AOC whose moral clarity led the opposition to Amazon, so maybe this debate group can use these differences to also recognize our common ground.

  6. Derek Spence (Class of ‘92) says:

    Great concept Coach S. It is refreshing to see someone promoting an open dialogue about issues which are often very divisive in today’s media-driven culture. Keep it up for another 30 years!

  7. ‘19 says:

    The Merciless Debate Society was born with the intent of creating open dialogue and attracting more students to a different style of debate. The 10 minute segments are designed to develop quick-witted thinking and an open dialogue. The article states that the group leans more conservative, but I believe all are welcome for the discussions and everyone’s views and comments are respectfully debated.

  8. Ben ‘05 says:

    Good!! You become a better musician by playing gigs, a better artist by showing your work, a better writer by publishing… students should welcome debate as an opportunity to sharpen analytical and public speaking skills.

  9. Rob McDowell ‘91 says:

    I was one of those student-athletes that sat outside coaches office debating issues over 30years ago. What I learned about clearly articulating a point of view, and listening to different perspectives even when I disagreed, has been a key part of my successful career. Bravo to Coach Slovenski for encouraging debate and to the students who have the courage to share their ideas.

  10. Jude Kelkey says:

    As the satirical publication The Onion so eloquently put it in a headline a few months ago: “College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea” (note the intentional singular). Too many college environments are becoming exclusionary in their political views. I applaud Coach Slovenski‘s effort to carve out a space for some actual debate at Bowdoin. -Class of ‘97 alum

  11. Class o 99 says:

    Great work by Slovenski. Interesting that in an overwhelmingly liberal campus apparently only the conservatives have the guts to show up!

  12. Darcy Resch says:

    This is fabulous. We cannot solve problems if we don’t know how to openly, honestly and (hopefully) logically express ourselves and listen to others with opposing views. Our colleges should be hotbeds of intellectual debate.

  13. Brenna ‘15 says:

    Great job Coach Slovenski! In an era when public discourse is dominated by media silos and partisan echo chambers, colleges have a responsibility to create forums where students can respectfully engage with views different from their own. Coach has always worked to create space for thoughtful dialogue in the fieldhouse, and he deserves congratulations for expanding that effort to the broader Bowdoin community.

  14. Adamo Hardej, '83 says:

    Bravo Coach Slovenski for setting up the forum! Great idea! And I hope both Republicans/conservatives, Democrats/liberals and true Independents show up on a regular basis and maintain open minds and open hearts. #Let’sJustAgreeToDisagree:). Hey – College Students – don’t take yourselves so seriously:). Lighten up! And definitely don’t put politicians up on a pedestal. Let’s remember, they are just public servants after all. Adam J. Hardej, Jr., ’83

  15. Delia van Loenen says:

    Coach Slovenski’s Merciless Debate Society should be a required class. Colleges and universities used to rightly aspire to be free marketplaces of ideas. Now they have become the guardians of uniformity of thought. It is a sad comment on the state of things that a special group has to be formed OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM in order for students to feel safe airing opposing viewpoints. I commend Coach Slovenski on creating a space to continue the true mission of higher education, which is the pursuit of truth. That can only happen through vibrant and diverse discourse not censorship. It is my sincere hope that students of all backgrounds, beliefs, and political affiliations start attending the Merciless Debate Society. Academia, and our country as a whole, will flourish only if we are able to freely share our opinions, better understand one another as a result, and learn to work together.

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