Biting with freethought

I get flipped off every Tuesday afternoon on Sproul Plaza. Why, you might ask, does such an irregular event occur to me on such a regular basis? The answer, dear reader, is that I am a libertarian at one of the most notoriously liberal universities in the nation: our beloved UC Berkeley.

Fear not, this isn’t a universal event that occurs to every “conservative” at Cal. Rather, I am a particular case since I founded Cal’s current libertarian student organization, Students for Liberty, as a sophomore. Thus, while tabling over the past two years with my club’s showy signs, some dissenters have taken a liking to channeling their disagreement through a middle-fingered drive by. I usually respond with a smile, wave and invitation for my spontaneous opponent to explain why he or she flipped me the bird, hoping it could progress into a political discussion. Unfortunately, my calls for civility are usually never met.

Justifying my political beliefs in words, they must think, how inconceivable!

Indeed, when your political ideology aligns with that of the majority at Berkeley, it must seem unnecessary to call into question the logical grounding of your opinions. After all, everyone agrees! However, students such as myself with views that deviate from the liberal norm are not in such a position of privilege, having to be constantly on the defensive. The primary front for such an intellectual attack is indubitably in the classroom. It is no secret that many courses in the humanities and social sciences are heavily politicized, causing discussion sections to be loaded with partisan discourse. This can be rather difficult for freethinkers, as one’s participation grade often conflicts with one’s political principles.

Personally, I have found that the best antidote to this ailment is to be an especially good student, paying close attention to the philosophical substance behind every argument. In this manner, I can appear to be an attentive pupil without clinging to the unfavorable libertarian label. Most importantly, being attentive to the arguments propagated in the classroom helps develop the intellectual ammunition to explain why you believe something is incorrect.

In fact, the nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill shared a similar view about the importance of persistent intellectual re-evaluation, famously claiming that “No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but … The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others.” According to Mill, who we would doubtlessly label a libertarian today, only two results could emerge from discoursing with dissenting views — both of which are intellectually profitable.

In one case, we could discover that our beliefs are incorrect and abandon them for those of superior reasoning. In the other, we could emerge with greater confidence that our beliefs are correct “having taken up (the) position against all gainsayers.” I confess that I came to Berkeley as a fairly ignorant libertarian with some strong opinions and weak justifications. However, after three years of constant exposure to dissenting opinions through classes and the club I founded, I feel that this “steady habit of correcting and completing” has given greater strength to my beliefs.

If only more people would follow suit.

Indeed, if anything, I would like my column to function as a call for my fellow Berkeleyans to challenge the underlying assumptions of their political beliefs.

Fear not, I won’t abuse this space as a soapbox for libertarian evangelizing. If you’d like to “see the light” in that sense, you can find Preacher Given on Sproul during my Tuesday tabling sessions (but please use words, not middle fingers).

Instead, I will take a unique approach of exploring campus and national politics through exposing the larger philosophical debates inherent in each issue, while delicately dropping my two cents. Granted, my radical skepticism coupled with my libertarian sentiments will likely prove to be a contentious combination.

After all, I will be questioning everything from whether our university should be publicly funded at all — seriously — to whether the ASUC should even exist (this is not hyperbole, people). However, at the end of each article, I’d ultimately like you to lay the paper down with a stronger understanding of your position, even if it’s discordant with mine.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once described himself as the “gadfly” of Athens, rousing the metaphorical horse of the state from intellectual sloth.

Essentially, I hope my column can serve the same function for Berkeley students pertaining to politics, challenging us all to think critically about issues that we too often oversimplify.

So watch out, Golden Bears, this gadfly is about the bite!