Cui: The question we should be asking ourselves

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Cui: The question we should be asking ourselves

Tom Cui, Columnist

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How are we supposed to think about the controversy over the “Jail N’ Bail” fundraiser planned by Kappa Kappa Gamma and Zeta Beta Tau? I have heard at least three different answers to that question, stirring as it has been over the past two weeks. One way is to name Kappa and ZBT as accomplices in racism. Another is to accuse the protestors as “left-wing radicals.” But there is a third way to think about the problem, a way usually not seen in print: asking both sides “why do you care, anyway?”

“Why do you care?” is a question that shows up far beyond a single conflict with a Greek organization. It is a question I ask myself whenever I pass students fundraising for their student group in the dead of winter or performers surrendering sleep during the final week of rehearsals. Despite how often it pops up in my thoughts, I do not actually ask it to anyone. As far as I can see, no one else likes asking it either. Yet only now, on the cusp of graduation, have I realized how important a question it is.

Some context is needed here. The big problem concerns every conflict on campus due to divides in the student body: North versus South campus, Greek versus non-Greek and so forth. Vastly different perspectives on how to view the world and live life create these divides and cause disputes. The apparent solution is dialogue, making attempts to work out differences between seemingly disparate views.

If the solution is that simple, why do we not see more dialogue on this campus?  For a long time, I assumed people simply thought the cost of dialogue was too great, believing it will either fail or be emotionally draining. But then another question arises: Why do we believe this, even though no side ever promises unsuccessful dialogue?

Instead of accusing other NU students of some hidden agenda, assume something about how they think about the world. I will call one group “hedgehogs” and another group “foxes.” Hedgehogs are those who are inclined to see the world through one intellectual lens, like “technological progress” or “white supremacy.” Foxes naturally see the world in many ways, choosing whichever way feels best at the moment.

This distinction was introduced 51 years ago by philosopher Isaiah Berlin. He focused not only on pure foxes and hedgehogs, but also on hybrids of the two. You may think you are a hedgehog in the right when you are actually a fox in need of some clarity in the world. You may think you are a versatile fox when you are in fact a hedgehog lacking a doctrine to follow.

The way dialogue is often sparked is with arguments about how you should act one way or the other. Hedgehogs appeal to definitive concepts, like an act’s wrongness; foxes appeal to intuition and what they feel is the best to do. Hedgehogs respond to arguments with conviction in their own theories; foxes respond by thinking about whether those arguments feel good to them.

But hybrid thinkers are silenced by these back-and-forths. Think about a fox acting like a hedgehog out of a need for clarity; they act like a hedgehog not out of conviction, but out of defense. Someone may appear to think in a certain way, but that appearance does not reflect what really motivates them. If we treat them based on how they claim to see the world, we will risk conjuring responses that are to them offenses.

Here is the power of asking “Why do you care?” instead of “Why should you care?”  How we think we should see the world may not be what is most natural to us, and a stranger asking about our motivations can be what we need to reflect on our ways. The first question is a beacon that shines upon real beliefs instead of defense mechanisms.

We rarely mention on this campus divides between approaches to thinking, but that just means there is unlocked potential in questioning a stranger’s inherent foxiness or hedgehogness. Maybe our campus would have fared a bit better had I realized this earlier, but now is as good a time to start as any.

Tom Cui is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at tianfangcui2015@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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