Opinion //

“Just Asking Questions”

Despite a rhetorical openness to debate and to having their ideas challenged, the Conservative Club demonstrates a consistent refusal to engage in open discussion.

I first crossed paths with the Conservative Club (ConClub) during the 2020 Welcome Fest. Despite not being a conservative myself, I have had a long term interest in conversation with people I disagree with, and so I approached the stall, adorned with its infamous Liberal Party campaign placards and quotes from Reagan and Thatcher. I began to chat with a curly-haired member who sang praises of the free market, only to be quickly replaced as my interlocutor by the young man sitting next to her, eagerly listening in. But when I asked him about his views, I was met with an unexpected reluctance to open up. Eventually I moved the conversation forward by promising that I would hear him out  – not push back on his views whatsoever. With this, I extracted the phrase: “It’s just that every successful nation in history has been ethnically and religiously homogeneous.”

While I would like to have further engaged with the ideas he expressed, the only way to reach the point I did was to lock myself out of the conversation. This exchange clashed with my expectations of a political club, and even seemed to contradict a video released last year by the current executive team. In a video posted to Facebook on “why YOU should join ConClub”, the President states that “as president, I most enjoy being able to facilitate the contest of ideas on campus. That occurs through our events, and it involves engaging with people who I may not necessarily agree with, but using their ideas to refine my own.” Despite this claim, I had found myself in a position where I could not contest ideas. This was the first in a series of increasingly flaccid interactions with the society’s execs and the President that led me to conclude that the conduct of ConClub stands in stark contrast to their stated ideals. 

Sometime later, hoping for something more substantive, I faced the Conservative Club again; the encounter was similarly disappointing. In Welcome Week during my break from manning the Vegetarian Society stall, I asked ConClub what they stood for and initially got some conversation. The enthusiastic Exec I was speaking with explained that they stood to support “fundamental institutions such as ‘the Church’ and ‘the Family’”. When I enquired further, I was told they just want to support churches, mosques, and synagogues to have their freedom to practice. This still wasn’t enlightening, and I mentioned that this seemed so vague that far left groups on campus may say much of the same thing. And in fact, the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) website states “In particular we reject racism towards Muslims, whose right to religious and political freedom is routinely attacked on the spurious grounds of ‘fighting terrorism’.” But the ConClub Exec rejected this idea, saying that SAlt would want to “burn down” places of worship. Given SAlt’s own statements, I found this unconvincing. Since I doubt SAlt and ConClub converge on much, I suspect ConClub’s mild support may be more akin to dog whistling.

We moved onto what is meant by “the Family”. She excitedly put forward her support for what amounted to the nuclear family. To this I responded that “I think a monogamous relationship where you only have one sexual partner for your entire life can work great for some people, but maybe not everybody.” Surprisingly, she agreed with me, stating: “that’s why we’re for a small government who stays out of people’s lives, and we’d never want to legislate this”. Her other point was so tepid that SAlt would agree with it, and this point amounted to a general support of personal freedoms without any suggestion of political action to underpin it? When I pressed her on this I had the fascinating experience of her turning away from me, and as I stood patiently waiting for our conversation to resume, pretending that I did not exist. Clearly, the conversation was over to her.

The most disappointing case of this refusal to engage was during this year’s Welcome Fest. Once again manning the Vegetarian Society stall, I sat back and watched as ConClub marched down Eastern Avenue, waving a placard of Dominic Perrottet, no doubt triggering libtards left and right in their heads. They elicited some boos, and then left. Only later, they came back with a different sign. To be fair, perhaps the first few times I approached ConClub, while it may go against what they supposedly stand for, they weren’t at an obligation to engage with me. But on this occasion, they had come with a question. This new placard, held by the President of the club, read “Socialism killed 100 000 000 people. Can you justify this?” Excited now, I went over to speak to them. I asked him if he knew that the 100 million figure includes Soviet victims of Nazism. But, uncharacteristically of someone who supposedly wants to “facilitate the contest of ideas on campus”, he said “I’ve already had this conversation”, shrugged me off, and walked away. This behavior –  asking a question without any genuine interest in discussing it, really only to rile their political opponents – is reminiscent of sealioning; it epitomises ConClub’s intellectual dishonesty.

I wouldn’t dispute that progressive groups on campus have acted similarly, but even if we grant that ConClub’s left-wing counterparts are just as closed off to dialogue (which I don’t defend) it’s usually not a cornerstone of their self-marketing and rhetoric. ConClub has specifically stated they want to facilitate the contest of ideas at USyd. I also don’t label all conservatives as intellectually dishonest. While in my experience this has been true of ConClub, it has not been true of all conservative clubs. Some have provided significant challenges to my positions and led me to philosophically develop.

So, while I do congratulate USyd ConClub on single-handedly keeping the polo shirt industry afloat, the club’s members fundamentally fail to live up to their own standards. They have a pretense of being a political, intellectual club, but their only sincere goal seems to be to disrupt and seek attention. If the ranks of ConClub are confident enough to walk down Eastern Avenue waving a sign of Dominic Perrottet, met with boos and glares, they should be confident enough to publicly support their ideas with reasoned argument.

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