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Moving to DC was a very interesting transition for me in a lot of ways, and one of them was definitely the political culture I stumbled into. Coming from Houston, Texas, which is the most diverse city in the country, it was strange to me to be a part of such a unimodal campus. AU is clearly a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), but it’s also a primarily liberal institution. I never realized how much diversity of opinion was present in my city and my high school until I began school here. Republicans or conservative individuals in Houston were perhaps not the majority, but they definitely were not out of the ordinary. Here, those terms are nearly considered slurs, and are spoken in hushed whispers: “He’s a conservative.

As a progressive woman myself, I didn’t really notice how homogenous my views were at first; it was just nice to be around a lot of people who shared my opinions and values. As time went on, however, I noticed a change in my own perceptions of people who had different political views than me. Eventually, even moderate Democrats were “annoying” or “not real Democrats” or “didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Sound familiar?

If those labels sound like they match what’s gone through your head, it’s likely not because you’re bigoted or mean. It’s probably because you’ve been surrounded by and interacting with people who all have very similar views to your own. The tendency for your own views to become amplified by communication and repetition inside a closed system or group is an effect known as the “Echo Chamber.” When you have a lot of similarly minded individuals that have the ability to group together and reinforce their own opinions, as is the case at AU, it is easy to fall into this phenomenon without even noticing it.

It’s easy to be friends when everyone just agrees with everyone else. However, this also leads to alienation of other people who are part of what’s called the “out-group,” which may lead to further polarization on that end as well. In psychology, the “out-group” is the name given to a group of individuals that are marginalized from a main group for some reason; in this case, political affiliation.

Humans are programed to function in groups. We’ve seen this in every culture and society since the beginning of civilization, and we continue to see it today… So why is it suddenly an issue?

The problem arises because we are seeing palpable increases in hostility towards members of opposing parties. Rhetoric that was once respectfully disagreeing is now rancidly abusive, and this is becoming a large problem on college campuses, which revolve around social interaction and learning. If all of our interactions with others of the opposing party are non-productive and rancorous, we have no incentive to attempt to continue communication.

When we look at the political scene as a whole today, it becomes clear that on item after item, Americans not only disagree on the issues but also increasingly personally dislike those from the other party. The academic term for this is affective polarization, or “…the tendency of people identifying as Republicans or Democrats to view opposing partisans negatively and co-partisans positively."

Essentially, active polarization refers to our demonization of members of the opposing party. The statistical support for this phenomenon is overwhelming: 45% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats think that the other party is a threat to the health of the nation, according to Pew Research Center as of 2016. We are increasingly viewing our own opinions as facts and holding them as grounds for the dismissal of the opinions of others.

American University’s lack of diversity in political opinion leads to the formation of a campus Echo Chamber that alienates and marginalizes some groups of students. I spoke to Vicky Wilkins, the Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, about her opinions on the matter of campus polarization. When asked what she thinks AU can do, the response was vague; the conversation was quickly diverted to the notion that, “students came to us this way, so maybe we should be asking what can be done at home/where this behavior came from…”

This was very interesting to me. She acknowledges the issue but is notably reluctant to accept responsibility for addressing it. But isn’t college the time for this kind of exploration and understanding? Isn’t it our duty to be correcting biases, or at least providing access to the information and diverse viewpoints that might inspire change in people? Does AU not have a responsibility to its students when it comes to furthering their education in more ways than just in the classroom? 

Caution Tape at the United States CapitolThe clear correlation on college campuses in the United States between highly politically active student bodies and increased polarization is a trend that is mirrored in the United States as a whole, which has led to a lack of desire to compromise that has devastated our governing bodies. In order to decrease political polarization in the United States, the promotion of diversity of opinion and open-mindedness should be facilitated on college campuses.

But with that said, here’s the thing: should we seek this kind of solution?

When researching this issue, I realized that it is a lot more complicated than I anticipated. On campus, Professor Lara Schwartz runs a program called the Project on Civil Discourse, which aims to facilitate meaningful discussion on campus. When I spoke to her, she provided a very nuanced perspective about her aims in this program. Her aim is to make sure difficult topics are discussed in meaningful ways, and you can request that a pair of facilitators come to your classroom to lead a discussion about a variety of topics.

Talking to Professor Schwartz made me question the viability of a solution, because she raised a few very important points: Should we provide a platform, or a “safe space” if you will, for all opinions? What about racist opinions? What about sexist opinions? What about antisemitic, Islamophobic, or anti-religious opinions? When do we stop and say, “I don’t want to listen to you”? Isn’t it a privilege to actively want to talk about these issues? If you still feel like the topic of racism is one you can “argue” about, perhaps that is due to your own privilege, and doesn't really deserve a response.

sign saying fight today for a better tomorrowWhen we identify with a political party, we are aligning ourselves with more than just a set of policies; we are aligning with a group of people, and beliefs, and values. What happens when the beliefs and/or values of one group challenge the very identities of some of the members in another group? Certain political positions (same-sex marriage, for example) are very much tied to identity. Even policies which are arguably not racist on their face but prove to be racist policies in their implementation (stop-and-frisk is one example that comes to mind) can be considered an attack on identity.

It is a difficult line to straddle. How do we promote education and understanding while still remaining cognizant of the fact that there are some opinions that are unacceptable? I’ve personally come to believe that your right to free speech stops where someone else’s right to feel safe and valid begins.