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The Quality of Our Political Discourse is Pathetic

Someone recently posted on the Columbia/Barnard Class of 2019 Facebook page with Benjamin Sweetwood’s argument “Republicans at Columbia are scared to admit who they’re voting for”, asking for thoughts.

I have so many thoughts on this that I figured I’d write an opinion piece in response.

To me, it is definitely an issue when a group of students feel voiceless or unwelcome/unsafe speaking up on campus and in class. I think it is an issue that people, and especially people in power (like professors who have power in a classroom setting) can be dismissive of views students have just because they can be categorized as “conservative” or “republican” views—or as any “type” of view, really. It can definitely create further issues when a community or campus becomes in an echo chamber and is not considering outside views.
While I believe professors, who are in positions of power, should be welcoming to all ideas, or at least conversation about all ideas, this is obviously not always the case. For an in-class-related situation, I believe professors should take time (whether during or outside of class) to respond and analyze the students’ views and—if they don’t agree with their student—respectfully explain or discuss how their views and their reasoning differ and to explain why they’d dismiss the comment a student made in class. Maybe the professor fundamentally disagreed with the student and had no patience for outside ideas—that’s bad teaching. If the professor fundamentally disagreed with you and had time constraints for their lesson plan, which they wanted to get through with the whole class that day, but are willing to talk with you and/or whoever else is interested outside of class to dissect your comment further—that’s good teaching. Granted, if the school community seems hostile towards conservative or unfavorable or unpopular views, it’s understandable a student might not feel as safe going to office hours to discuss an issue further with their professor or to discuss it with peers outside of class. And that’s an issue the community may definitely want to address.

That being said, political views can be very heated and polarizing, inside or outside the classroom. Sometimes rather than starting a meaningful and healthy debate about why we hold different values and beliefs on specific issues, it’s easy for people to respond by dismissing the other side’s views or by mocking it. (You see this problem all over the media, and I believe this is a HUGE issue in this country, one which truly drags our national discourse further and further down and away from meaningful, substantial, healthy debate.) Especially when every time someone hears an opinion from the other side than theirs and then does have a debate, if everyone usually stays on the same sides after the debate, people can find that process both discouraging and infuriating. Why put themselves through that again? This is why people often avoid mentioning politics altogether and why some families decide to make political conversations taboo during holidays. Though I recognize this as a strategy of self-preservation, I think it’s unhealthy when everyone goes back inside their own echo chambers. Especially in an academic setting, I believe there is definitely a need for spaces where people can speak freely and openly and talk with people who see the world differently than they do.

Okay. So, let’s check in here. I feel like most people can agree with everything that’s above this line. But the world isn’t so neat and reasonable. Here’s where this issue gets more muddled:
As I’ve said, people can get very heated and passionate and divided over political views. Now, in this 2016 presidential election, there is a LOT to be heated and passionate about. I personally feel that on so many issues in this specific election—with all that Donald Trump has said dealing with minorities (Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, women, small business owners, etc.) and with the violent suggestions and dismissive ways Donald Trump has dealt with people who HE doesn’t agree with—to many people, hearing that someone would vote for Trump is like saying that person agrees with Donald Trumps views in that arena. Now, if you support Trump, that literally means you support him and want to see Trump—who holds and represents these views—in charge of your country. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are as racist or sexist or xenophobic or anti-free speech as Trump. It doesn’t mean you agree with EVERYTHING that that man says. But I think there is a good argument that it means you are at least privileged enough to vote for him anyway, despite those hateful things he stands for. And that might be why you’re getting targeted in class and on campus. Which I’m not saying is okay, because it’s not a crime to be privileged. You shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe on campus. But I think it is an issue to be privileged and ignorant of how your privilege affects the rest of the world. Or at least, the United States, which is the country/presidential election we’re talking about here. And that’s how you’re coming across to a lot of your classmates.

Honestly, I personally do not understand how people can vote for Trump, knowing how he treats people and what he stands for. I am curious, though. I know some people from my hometown—not from the Columbia community—who would vote for him because they don’t want to see Hillary Clinton get elected. And I still don’t fully understand their point of view, either. (I haven’t decided completely who I will vote for yet. I am dissatisfied with my choices). But at least I can talk to the people who do or do not want to vote for Hillary about it! At Columbia, I don’t know who I would talk to for the conservative or Republican view, because that voice definitely does seem silenced and taboo here at this very liberal campus. I honestly suspect part of that might be because at this very liberal campus of ours, a large percentage of people here value the lives of minorities and less privileged communities enough to be horrified that the Republican party nominated Trump for president, and maybe this highly educated campus doesn’t have enough Republicans who are so strongly committed to their beliefs as to look past these huge faults of Trump. I imagine that Republicans exist here who do not support Trump, but I don’t know them personally either. This divide may have happened on campus before Trump, but it certainly hasn’t been helped by him. I can’t speak about my experience (or lack thereof) with Republicans on campus for years before this election, because I only joined this community last fall.

Let me say, Donald Trump has said things that I totally agree with! Not many, but a few. The thing is, he says whatever the hell he feels like with no regard for the consequences. And though I sometimes admire people who are like that, that is not a quality I look for in a leader, especially not in the leader of an entire country. Especially when he doesn’t take himself seriously—he mocks and ridicules people’s responses. I believe the most change happens on local and state levels, but I am honestly rather fearful of how he would treat this country as an elected president. I am fearful of what that represents about our nation. I am already horrified by how he is treating our country today and by how poorly he has treated local businesses in my home state of NJ in the past, not paying small-business contractors and getting away with impunity.

To summarize:

  • I do think that it is problematic that Republicans, as a minority on this campus, do not feel safe expressing their views here. I want students to feel safe and welcome on this campus. I also think some professors could probably do a better job addressing conservative views, especially those brought up by students.
  • Because many students feel unsafe expressing Republican or conservative views, the whole community loses a chance to have meaningful conversations about both sides of these political issues.
  • -At the current time in our country right now, the elected leader of the Republican Party represents a lot that I cannot support. I can value Trump supporters as people worthy of respect and love, but honestly, I don’t know or interact with any Trump supporters, at least not in settings where we’re talking about politics. Probably because #1, I’m picky with my friends and who I surround myself with and I don’t think anyone who shares my core values could in good conscience vote for Trump. (My father and siblings are liberals or independents. My mother, however, has been a Republican at least all my twenty years of life, and with this election she quit the Party. She cannot and will not support Donald Trump.) And #2, the second reason I don’t know many Trump supporters is because I go to a very liberal school where Republicans apparently feel silenced. It’s not a good thing. I would love to talk with a few Republicans who support Trump. Maybe I will make an effort to find some this year. But will I spend my energy trying to make Trump supporters feel more welcome on campus? Honestly, no. I will spend my free time and energy on working towards bettering the lives of people who are less privileged than Trump and his supporters.

Those are my thoughts. Thanks for sharing this article, and your viewpoint. I honestly appreciate it, and wish there was better, more respectful dialogue on campus and in our national media.

Grace is a sophomore at Barnard College studying Urban Studies with a focus on Education Studies and Chinese/English Translation.

The Lion is the only Columbia publication with an open-submissions policy. To respond to this op-ed or to submit one of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com

Comments ( 5 )
  • DissentingVoice says:

    You want discourse? Sounds great. Let me paraphrase my reading of your argument:

    “Shucks, it’s too bad that Republicans aren’t active on campus. I really wish they felt free to state their opinions. Unless they happen to be one of the 40-some odd percentage of Americans who support Trump, then in that case they are “privileged” and I don’t want them to feel welcome because they are so ignorant about being so ‘privileged’ that they would dare vote for the Republican candidate.”

    If you don’t see the hypocrisy in that, then you should probably open your eyes and try again.

    Who am I, you ask? Maybe I’m a right-winger that is tired of the anti-Americanism, federal corruption, and lying that keeps the current political class in power. Maybe I think “safe spaces” and “micro-aggression” and the tear-shedding, moaning, selfish political correctness machine are trying to bubble-wrap folks’ feelings against the harsh, deadly reality of suffering and death that exist for people in the real world. Maybe I want to build a wall, if for no other reason than to show the nations of the world that America’s immigration laws, and all of our laws, have meaning.

    Are you content? Is your safari to find the rare Columbian Trump supporter quite finished? Am I racist enough or xenophobic enough or “privileged” enough to check the boxes on your talking-points sheet? Because I “literally” (or, you know, ideologically?) support Donald Trump for president of the United States.

    CC ’19
    Donald Trump 2016

    • Grace Mueller says:

      I do appreciate discourse. Thank you. Let me try to rephrase my argument though, because the way you perceived it is not how I intended.

      My argument—in response to how frustrated and alone Benjamin Sweetwood seemed to be feeling when looking for ways to engage in political conversations on campus, as he talked about in his argument “Republicans at Columbia are scared to admit who they’re voting for” in The Tab—is that if this is true, and true for many other Republican students as well, our academic and social community here has a problem (to add to the extensive list of issues already present at this institution). I do want students to feel welcome expressing their views and beliefs on campus. The alternative, bottling up beliefs and having no healthy outlets for discussion and debate with others, leaves no room for growth in any direction, just increased frustration and isolation. And as I stated in my argument, when people are afraid to speak up, the whole community loses the chance for meaningful conversations around the issues and points that are not being brought to the table. It’s unhealthy to live in an echo chamber where only one side is constantly validating itself and the minority only feels comfortable or safe supporting one another privately, when the other (publicly validated) side isn’t present.

      Where you may have misunderstood me is when I veered off expressing my very emotional feelings about Trump’s validity as a presidential candidate. My main point there is to show why it is such an instinct to dismiss people who believe differently than us, especially on political topics that are so tied to emotion and can make people feel “triggered.” Sweetwood said, “When I did reveal for who I’ll vote for come November to teachers or fellow students, their shocked and triggered faces contorted into shapes. I lost many chances for personal relationships with professors and students this way.”
      Psycho-analyzing myself a little here, I have felt “triggered” when I hear Trump speaking. As a coping mechanism I started reading transcripts of his speeches instead of listening to them. I’d probably be much happier not reading his speeches, either, but appreciating checking in now and again to read what he has to say directly.

      My mind’s first response when I see a Trump lawn sign in my neighborhood or my high school classmates’ reposts of those Toni Lahren “Final Thoughts” videos in my Facebook feed, or I imagine to someone outright saying to me, “I am voting for Trump,” is to think of how much I dislike Trump. I probably do make a face. However, I recognize that if everything ends there, it’s problematic. I want to develop better ways of hearing people out, listening for things we can agree on, and reevaluating my own beliefs. I don’t think it is healthy for people to simply dismiss everyone who holds different political beliefs from themselves, and my argument is that we have an unhealthy habit on campus and in American society in general of dividing ourselves along these Party lines, which on this campus might make certain people feel more isolated than others. We need to find better ways of listening to each other and seeing each other’s sides. I think those are small, positive goals to increase better understanding between the two Party sides. I don’t expect people “convert” anyone to the opposite side (though maybe I’d like to take people more towards the middle). I do hope though that with increased understanding and dialogue people can work with one another more. Because whoever gets elected for the presidential seat, there’s a lot more cooperation that needs to be done in order for politicians to achieve anything.

      Am I content? I am discontent and uncomfortable with the society we live in. I believe that state of our national discourse is pathetic, and I am sad that people feel uncomfortable speaking up about their beliefs on campus. Especially as we’re all young and I know I personally am still figuring out my beliefs, dialogue from many sides is so valuable. Though I do appreciate your comments, no one conversation is ever going to make me content. How sweet of you to check in, though.

      Is my safari to find the rare Columbian Trump supporter quite finished?

      I’d like to clarify, when I said I won’t spend my energy this semester making Republicans feel more welcome on campus, I meant that solving this issue is not my personal number one priority, certainly not on the campus level. I do not wish to make Republicans feel unwelcome. I honestly feel more individuals here should be more open to having honest debates. I would appreciate to have more respectful political conversations with Republicans and Independents and Socialists and Democrats on campus. However, I anticipate a lot of those conversations to be exhausting and draining, and that’s why it’s not so high on my personal to-do list to try tackling this problem in its entirety.

      Are you racist enough or xenophobic enough or “privileged” enough to check the boxes on my talking-points sheet?

      Honestly, it is probably a coping mechanism and hypocritical for me to tell myself a lot of people voting for Trump are ignorant of the privilege they hold and exert by voting for Trump. I hold a lot of privilege in many aspects myself and I live in a swing state, too, so I don’t necessarily feel I have to vote between Clinton or Trump, though I’m reasonably disillusioned about the prospect of any third party actually winning, and upset about either of those two becoming our next president. I don’t pretend to have any idea how racist or xenophobic or privileged you are.

      Anyway. I am very discontent with the status quo. I hope you are, too. That’s how we create change for the better.

  • Independent Voter says:

    Hillary Clinton’s feigned virtue is far more toxic than anything Trump, with his famous bigmouth, has ever said.

    She destroyed Libya. A close friend, a fellow Lion, who intended to do field research in his home country now must mourn his land and people. Libya has been completely destabilized.

    Iraq is another sad story. The lives of children, women and men have been ruined, and no amount of take-backsies from Clinton will change the fact she had a hand in devastation.

    Let me sum up the Clinton approach: let’s hope no finds out the true scale of my failure, and let’s take the minority vote for granted, yet again.

    The Democratic Party has spent far too much time courting the minority vote, encouraging us to believe in our disadvantage.

    See, you’re put off by harsh words, I’m put off by the harshness of inaction and action, when taken, far more corrosive than an insult.

    CC’16

    • Grace Mueller says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I am also put off by the harshness of inaction and the brutal results of certain actions. What has Trump done for the public good of this country, by any long-term or wide-reaching scale? What experience qualifies him to be president of the United States? As I’ve said, I don’t want someone who makes rash decisions, has no record of public service to mention, has had horrible business practices, and never admits his mistakes.

      I’m not a strong Clinton supporter, and since I don’t live in a swing state, I might vote third party. However, I still might vote for Clinton, because—even if I were to drop out of college and campaign 24/7 to encourage more people to vote third party, I don’t think any third party has a real viable chance this election. We’d need a much larger movement away from the divisions and corruption in our political system that currently exist to enact the change I’d really like to see. Our nation’s two-party system leaves us with no perfect choice. So, with that depressing, defeatist mindset, I will likely cast my vote for a third party candidate like Jill Stein, expecting her to lose. Or, I may vote for the woman who does have at least some (extensive) experience in office to speak of. She represents a lot of the same political corruption that has existed in previous presidencies, and I am not proud to support her (I may not vote for her), but I am hopeful that if elected, she might work towards some of Senator Sanders’ additions to her platform. I’d much prefer her nominating the next Supreme Court justice over Trump. While I don’t think Clinton is the best choice for the job, in this imperfect two-party system we have, I do prefer Clinton to Trump.

      • Independent Voter says:

        Thank you for your comments and this article. Trump is a headache, for sure, but I’m just as pained by those who are “triggered” off, then fail to fire in any meaningful way.

        For example, the recent efforts to stop Milo from speaking at college campuses is a failure of discourse, borderline fascist, really a maniacal show of aggression. If these folks were to look past their self-righteousness, they’d see their tactics only work to strengthen weak arguments, as their opponents only have to gesture to the left and roll their eyes, like liberal philosophy is the punchline to their joke.

        If this is how we answer “the other side,” then I’m not sure I want to be associated with this one. Either someone’s put lead in the drinking water or many of us are being taught to learn less and feel more. Put a mic to your peer, as many have (youtube), and see how they justify supporting Clinton or hating Trump. It’s not with words or logic, but something new — rah-rah liberalism.

        As for this election, my vote is firmly for Jill Stein. She has no chance. Still, the less we stop treating the third party as an impossibility the more we may one-day have an actual alternative choice. Supply and demand works, too, in the marketplace of ideas. Don’t settle: Demand, demand, demand.

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