Is Conservative a Dirty Word?
Language is fluid; a phrase acclimates to the passage of time, and its definition changes as our world changes. But most terms remain consistent in different environments, and mean the same thing when uttered inside or outside of Packer. The word conservative, though—those four syllables which infect our social and academic lives with great animosity—seems to be one of the rare exceptions.
Given the generally liberal climate of Packer and New York City, identifying as a conservative within our school is different from identifying as one in general, as our immediate political spectrum is skewed to the left.
“At Packer, I might be considered conservative, but in the world I’m liberal to moderate,” said Xander Guarna (‘20). Our altered understanding of the word likely makes students hesitant to share moderate beliefs, as doing so can promote the idea that they are a conservative—a title that has negative connotations in our community. “Once people put a label on you, they assume that everything you say goes with that label,” Xander continued. “And honestly I have no idea how to fix that.”
“I feel like it’s kind of an unsafe place for conservatives,” said Alex Beaumont (‘23). “Not that I am one, but I feel that if you were to be conservative at Packer, you’d be harshly judged for your opinions.”
The fear of defining oneself as a conservative is frequently linked to the ethical values many Packer students, and perhaps many members of most liberal bubbles, ascribe to the ideology.
“[Conservative] doesn’t have to be a bad word, but people associate it with hate and exclusion,” explained Luke Halverstadt (‘20). Often, an affiliation is made, either consciously or subconsciously, between conservatism and a questionable moral compass, which can risk one’s ability to make friends and connect with others.
“It cuts you off from certain people because people assume that your political beliefs relate to your morals heavily… The vast majority of students here subscribe to that, which is honestly disgusting, because it cuts you off from so many people,” Xander said. “You can be friends with people and interact with people that you don’t agree with politically. I love the kids at Packer, but I think that [that] is one of the deepest issues in our community.” Such a connection between one’s political ideology and ethics can also make students hesitant to participate in some classes.
Advanced Topics in American Government is a course fraught with political tensions. Upper School History Teacher Erland Zygmuntowicz teaches AT Gov and aims to make the environment one conducive to lively discourse, though he acknowledges that he doesn’t “have 100 degree certainty that all conservative students, or students that are less sure of their convictions, are always completely free to vocalize.” Mr. Zyg attempts to promote such a climate by requiring his students to find competing narratives when researching current events and include counter arguments in every paper. But a teacher’s methods are limited in power; the influence of pedagogy rarely rivals that of social undercurrents.
“I was in AT Gov last year, and there were definitely some issues where I didn’t speak because I didn’t want to say what I actually thought,” said Luke. “Sometimes if somebody says a conservative viewpoint, you kind of see a look in others’ eyes and know they think less of the person.” The question of whether such judgment is warranted is, it seems, situational.
“It depends if the opinion is racist, or sexist, or generally hateful,” Alex explained. “If it involves hate speech or anything like that, then that is a point where you can judge [a person], because that’s unacceptable.”
Our academic environments, however, are arguably less vibrant due to the general hesitancy students have to communicate contrasting political opinions that are not grounded in hate, but rather in a mere difference of opinion. Even when varying outlooks are shared, the response is not always productive or rooted in thoughtfulness.
“A lot of times when people offer a less liberal opinion, people kind of just give the standard liberal response to it without asking, ‘Why do you feel that way? What circumstances are you in for you to think this way?’” said Maya Joseph (‘20). “They kind of just say, ‘Well, this is your opinion and it’s wrong for these reasons.’”
Mr. Zyg expressed a similar sentiment, emphasizing that students “have a richer, deeper understanding of [their] beliefs if [they] really think about other perspectives.”
Students at Packer rarely aim to make their peers feel unheard or denigrate opposing opinions to the point of ruin. Yet the pervasive culture of believing one’s political convictions to be not only indicative of but synonymous with the essence of their person often complicates one’s ability to engage in political disagreements, and thus vilifies certain members of our community.
“Nobody,” Mr. Zyg said, his voice resonant with earnestness, “is an absolute fountain of truth.”