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The pressure of having firm political convictions

By Alice Bello

Image: Fundbox, Gina Hall

 

It’s difficult to find a school more politically oriented than Sciences Po. Many a president and minister has been educated education here, and many more will follow. What these men and women all have in common – as all politicians should – is a profound sense of conviction, best defined as firmly held beliefs or opinions.

We live in an age where everyone must have an opinion. You need to be able to give your take on political news, fashion trends, Woody Allen’s latest film, and the decision of some Sciences Po students to block the entrance of the Paris campus. Although you can get away with not knowing what you think about the last episode of Casa de Papel, there’s an increasing need to be able to affirm your political opinions. This has invaded every aspect of our lives, from Twitter to Yik Yak, from classroom to the cafeteria. The pressure to have firm convictions is noxious: it is not only a lure but more handicapping than anything.

On one hand, this burden results in blindly adopted opinions. Indeed, when the pressure becomes too much, individuals tend to turn towards a certain opinion without thinking it through clearly, effectively losing sight of the true origins of these convictions. More than that, it often leads to giving heedless support to all positions tied to a specific political movement: I’m right-wing, this is a right-wing idea, therefore I support this idea. Far be it from me to generalize this to every student at Sciences Po, but one can wonder if those who feel the need to broadcast their political convictions do so because they feel conviction or if they’re simply responding to a pressure to pretend like they do.

The focus on convictions is now at the heart of our education at Sciences Po. Just take a look at the newly introduced Civic Engagement Track, which pushes students to structure their three years at Sciences Po around a “personal project based upon a socially minded theme.” While some people may not have had any problem doing so, I had a hard time differentiating between what I like, what I don’t like, and what I would be ready to defend. Sure, I may have a vague idea of a topic I’m passionate about, but to go so far as to plan the next three years of my life around a topic seems impossible to me.

To some extent, Sciences Po is battling this loss of conviction. In the classroom, opinions are shared through debates and, even if it’d be unheard of to hand in an essay where you give moral judgment of a historical figure, that doesn’t mean you can’t go to a teacher and debate the topic with them. At Sciences Po, convictions come out in the associations you join. There’s seemingly a group that represents every political stance: right wing? Les républicains’ got you covered. Centrist? Look no further than En Marche. Left wing? Génération.s. was made for you. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the face of so many possibilities to engage yourself, one can easily become lost, or even worse, conviction-less.

Sometimes the burden of having to give your opinion on anything and everything leads to, well, confusion and the absence of a clear sense of what we believe in. Upon coming to Sciences Po, I’ll admit I wasn’t extremely politically minded. I knew what I believed in more or less, but there wasn’t a particular political stance I sustained wholeheartedly. Eight months later, and I still lack clear political convictions: the multiplicity of positions that are all defended wholeheartedly left me a bit destabilized. Why not divide your convictions between these different political movements? No need to limit yourself to a single one, which might often lead to its blind defense and an impossibility to debate with others.

Last week’s General Assembly left me shocked. The debate hadn’t even started, yet each individual seemed clear on their vote. Worse than that, there was an ambient denigration of the political views, especially when they didn’t align with one’s own. Although most of these comments were made in jest, this tendency underlies a movement of intolerance that stems from the pressure of having – and affirming – strong political convictions. Having concrete opinions may be fruitful, but only to the extent that it doesn’t limit healthy and respectful debate.

Some will argue that there is something to be gained from the pressure to have concrete convictions. Its main objective may be to get apolitical and uncertain people to develop opinions on everything and on nothing. We must simply be wary of backing opinions for the wrong reasons, disguising a desire to ‘fit in’ behind outwardly shown convictions. When the stakes get higher, it’s important not to lose sight of our true motivations.

 

Alice is a Parisian New Yorker or a New Yorkan (is that a word?) Parisianer (that’s probably not a word either) hoping to conquer the world of journalism one day. Interests include drinking coffee, reading the New York Times, and reading the New York Times while drinking coffee. The Parisian New Yorker once a month.

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