The atmosphere was oddly tense. It was a Friday night in the Sawyer Mabie Room, and about 30 students sat on tables, eyeing each other. Some students had just explained the logic behind a supposed Joe Biden cocaine scandal, and others were beginning to question the claim’s validity, despite at first having gone along with it.
After five minutes of slightly confused discussion, Davey Morse ’22, co-president of the Williams Forum, the club hosting the meeting, explained that it was a conspiracy made up only minutes ago. The Forum is a campus politics club holding weekly political discussions and inviting guest and faculty speakers for students to engage with.
Earlier in the meeting, the attendees had broken up into groups, and Morse’s group had decided to “present a conspiracy theory as something real” when the group came back together, Morse said.
Something interesting happened. Students, “after they heard this confidently presented conspiracy theory to the group, responded to it in moderation, trusting their fellow Williams students, thinking about it from their perspective, connecting it to things that they may know and not outright rejecting it,” Morse said.
The theme of the meeting was political conspiracies, and it attracted about 30 students, five to 10 more than usual, according to Co-President Emma Neil ’22. Neil, Morse, Treasurer Grant Swonk ’21 and an eight-person board lead the Forum. Though the club has existed in previous years, Neil said the new Forum draws little inspiration from its previous iterations. Neil said she, Morse and Swonk all felt a lack of political engagement last year, and, after doing some digging on existing clubs, they reached out to the former presidents and the Office of Student Life (OSL) to check in on the future of the Forum. If it was to remain dormant, they wanted to see if they could take over.
The Forum’s main goal is to create space where students politically engage with each other and with national politics, “to pop the purple bubble,” Morse said.
Another goal of the club is to decrease self-censorship. “That includes stopping [people] from self-censoring themselves when they think that they might disagree with the majority opinion,” Morse said.
Taking a political science class his first semester led Morse to another of his goals for the club.
“I think the experience in that class and of a lot of the [people] I’ve talked to in political science classes here is that you get to engage in deep discussion, but you don’t necessarily align with the politics that you express in the context of a political science class,” he said.
So he wants to provide students a space to have personal stock in their arguments during a political discussion.
“You don’t personally feel ownership over or attached to those conversations” in a political science class, Morse said. “And that strikes me as funny if that’s the only way of engaging with politics because politics is such a deeply personal thing.”
The club has hosted six meetings so far, including one on political conspiracies and one on hate speech, but also a couple on more political structures. These include meetings on the presidential debate format and on the Electoral College.
At the beginning of the Electoral College meeting, the board used YouTube videos to clarify more complex alternatives to the Electoral College, like ranked-choice voting. Then, students scrawled diagrams and lists on boards, and one small group discussed alternatives to the Electoral College, the conversation spiraling into the workings of the Democratic primary and caucusing — but most of the members of that group admitted they did not understand caucusing.
The club leaders said they want the conversations to be accessible. One of the principles of the Williams Forum is that if someone brings in any outside information, they must fully explain it in order to use it. The other is that “everything you say is motivated by respect for all kinds of people,” according to Morse.
An idea that Morse thinks should be a third principle, but that the leaders of the club have yet to formalize, is “that we really encourage you to admit when you don’t know what’s going on,” Morse said. “That should be a fundamental thing about the club.”
Neil’s end goal for the club is to extend its culture to the rest of campus.
“I would love to change the campus culture surrounding political discussion,” she said. “I would love for the respectful, honest conversations that happen in the political forum space to be able to happen anywhere on campus. That’s the ideal.”
A common line Morse said he has heard around campus is, “We could talk about it, but we all agree, so why would we?”
“Also, after some emotionally charged incidents on campus last year, some seem to have some lost faith in the potential for conversation over difference at Williams,” he added in an email to the Record. “We want to gradually restore that faith by enabling consistently productive, warm dialogue.” At a place where he feels most people care about the world and, by extension, politics, he hopes to bring in as many different opinions as possible going forward.
The Forum has reached out to student groups ranging from the Minority Coalition to the Society for Conservative Thought. “If we’re trying to get as many kids to engage with each other as possible,” Morse said, “bringing in kids who have different backgrounds is our main goal.”