On Monday, October 17th, 2022, Bridge Texas hosted a “Change My Mind” event featuring YouTube Political and Gaming Live Streamer, Steven Bonnell, also known by his online username Destiny, at UT Austin.
Under a tent on Speedway, Bonnell defended a right leaning and left leaning topic: “Wokeism has gone too far” and “I am Pro Choice.” The event drew a crowd of students and Bonnell fans who were willing to listen and challenge Bonnell’s views through discussion. At its peak, the YouTube live stream of the event had over 12K viewers, with an average of 9-10K. The stream had over 300K views in total.
In a time of intense political division and self-isolating echo chambers, such events can help ideologically diverse students find common ground and explore differing opinions.
Student responses to the event were generally positive. Joshua Xernandez, who disagreed with Destiny on wokeism, felt like the conversation was productive and civil.
“I appreciate that [Destiny] let me say my piece,” Xernandez said. “Obviously we agree to disagree on some things, but the conversation seemed amiable.”
Xernandez also liked the idea behind Bonnell’s “Change My Mind” event.
“I like that these events engage the public and the youth. These conversations are necessary for us to heal the divide — it sounds cliche, but we have more in common than we don’t.”
Zoe Judson, a sophomore sociology major at UT Austin, disagreed with Bonnell on abortion but likewise enjoyed the event.
“I think we had a great conversation,” Judson said. “I think he handled it well, although I feel he went in circles with some of his arguments.”
A couple students, however, were put off by the event. One student walked by and shouted at Bonnell, “How much of a dumbass do you have to be to argue with kids?”
According to Bonnell, the goals of the event were to challenge students’ thinking and show that conversations among people with dramatically different political viewpoints are still possible today.
“College is the last place you can go to be adequately challenged with scary ideas,” Bonnell said. “At the same time, there’s still a safe environment to deal with any issues that might come up from being challenged in this way.”
Jeff Hamill, the main coordinator for the event, explained the impetus for the event and echoed Bonnell’s sentiment about the intellectual role of the university.
“Destiny and I wanted to expand beyond the desktop and talk with actual people about controversial issues,” Hamill said. “College campuses are supposed to be the last places of actual thought and conversation where you can talk about whatever. You should be able to question everything, and right now it seems that that’s not happening as much in the US. We are trying to challenge that trend and say that it’s ok to have opposing views on hot topics.”
The road to hosting the event, however, was a bit uncertain.
Hamill reached out to Bridge Texas at UT Austin, a campus organization dedicated to bridging political divides through discussion, about hosting the event.
“I didn’t want to call the event ‘Change my Mind’ because it has a connotation of winning and losing a debate,” Hammill said. “Although debate happens when discussing some topics, the idea was to have conversations, express the underlying beliefs, and for both sides to leave with new perspectives to consider.”
Caleb Guerrero, the president of Bridge Texas, was originally hesitant. “Change My Mind” originated as a series of events hosted by Steven Crowder, a popular conservative YouTuber. Many of these events are criticized for being hostile, antagonistic, and more about getting views than building bridges.
Bonnell also has a somewhat controversial reputation. He began his career as a professional gamer and streamer and made his name as a “leftie debate bro” willing to argue with anyone, especially alt-righters. In 2019, however, Bonnell began a bridge burning arc with leftists. 2020 saw Bonnell unpartnered from Twitch for hyperbolic statements he made while defending Kyle Rittenhouse. In 2022, Bonnell was indefinitely banned from twitch for non-explicit reasons, although Bonnell believes it was because of his stance on trans women in sports.
But after conferring with Ross Irwin, the Chief Operating Officer for their mother organization Bridge USA, Guerrero and Bridge Texas decided to host the event. Irwin was familiar with Bonnell and had seen him debate positions across the political spectrum in good faith.
“I’d seen Destiny debate with people both to the right and the left, so I knew he wasn’t a super hardliner either way,” Irwin said. “Also, for this event, he has a conventionally right wing viewpoint in ‘Wokeism has gone too far’ and a conventionally left wing viewpoint in being pro choice. His ability to hold both of those views and talk to people on the opposite sides suggested to me that this event would be a good avenue for constructive dialogue.”
Moreover, Bonnell recently began a shift away from debate bro style confrontations and focused more on building bridges across political divides. He held civil conversations with students and even hosted a mini-”Change My Mind” event at Dartmouth College this year that wasn’t subject to the intense hostility of Crowder’s original events.
The setup for Monday’s event was supported by members from Bridge Texas and Bridge USA, the free speech group Uncensored America, and Destiny fans (called DGGers – coming from his website, destiny.gg), some of whom traveled from other cities.
AZ Budhwani, an avid DGGer and senior at UTSA, made the one and a half hour trip from San Antonio to Austin in order to help out.
“I was a fan for a while and thought it would be cool to meet someone who I liked,” Budhwani said. “When it comes to left wing commentators, it feels like there’s less who are willing to engage the other side. Destiny is more willing to engage with bigger right wing figures and serve as a counter to the Ben Shapiros and Steven Crowders.”
Budhwani had also tried to get the event hosted at UTSA, but those plans fell through.
“I was trying to go through a club, but nothing seemed to work in terms of getting them to agree,” Budhwani said. “The crux of it seemed to be that they didn’t want any controversy or problems, even if I suggested ways to prevent those from happening. I was disappointed because I think that universities are great places to have these types of conversations and bridge political division. If we listen to each other, we can make progress — by not talking, we prevent it.”
All in all, Bonnell was pleased with how the event went, but stated he may change up his marketing strategy next time.
“I wanted to announce it ahead of time because I didn’t like Crowder’s way of ambushing unprepared college students to just destroy them,” he said. “When I announced it ahead of time, a bunch of my own fans, who already agree with me on most things, showed up — so there was a bit less diversity of opinion.”
Despite this, the main goals of Bonnell’s “Change My Mind” were to challenge thoughts and bridge divides by having conversations. Based on student responses and the civility of the conversations, the event seems to have met its mission.
“I think that there can be limits to these types of events depending on the presenter,” said Hector Guerra, a third year physics major who debated Bonnell on abortion. “But I think it’s all about having a one to one good faith conversation, which seems to be getting a lot rarer nowadays.”
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