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Encouraging political diversity on campus

Since starting at Carleton in 2019, I have felt very privileged to go to a school with such smart, passionate students. I learn so much from the people around me, and find my peers to be the greatest asset to Carleton’s outstanding academic environment. That said, there is one area in which we seriously struggle: disagreement. 

The ability to disagree is one of the most critical skills in a democracy. It allows various perspectives to civilly coexist under a single government, is in fact the reason why we have a democracy at all. Yet, here at Carleton, we discourage disagreement. We shame it. Have you heard about the “closeted conservatives?” The problem is not, as some have suggested, that there are conservatives on campus. The problem is that they are closeted out of fear of backlash should they make their views publicly known. 

To provide some background: I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, in a district which was reliably Republican until we elected Abigail Spanberger in 2018. My Democratic parents taught me to be politically engaged, and throughout grade school, I was one of the most liberal students enrolled. I had countless conversations with other students about why I wasn’t a murderer for being pro-choice (yes, seriously), why evolution is real and why affirmative action is necessary, just to name a few. I constantly had to defend my views to people who disagreed with me. It was frustrating, tedious, and disheartening, but it challenged me and made me a better informed citizen. 

This is why I find myself so impatient with Carleton’s political culture. It seems that we constantly engage in a competition of who among us can be the most ardent defender of the most liberal views possible. It’s exhausting and it’s alienating, even for those of us who consider ourselves liberal. I find myself keeping quiet on views that wouldn’t typically be considered contentious. I can’t imagine what it must be like for true moderates on campus, or worse, Republicans. 

Remember last March, when we were asked to contribute to a Moodle forum about the Spring Term grading policy? It was a bloodbath! We ate our own! Over a grading policy! What should have been a fairly mundane topic proved to be extremely controversial, with students weaponizing others’ views and using them as a metric of privilege. There is nothing more ironic (and performative) than wealthy white students scolding other wealthy white students for not knowing how privileged they are. And on the basis of a grading preference, no less. 

Why do we feel so threatened by opposing viewpoints that our first instinct is to attack them? By failing to educate ourselves on the political diversity that is a defining characteristic of our democracy, we are doing a significant disservice to our community. Instead of regarding disagreement as something that needs to be shut down, we should welcome it as an opportunity to hear new perspectives and hone our opinions. 

Furthermore, Carleton is a liberal enclave, making us forget that we live in a country where, in many places, our views would be considered radical. Once we leave college, we cannot shut down—nor attempt to shut others down—at the first sign of disagreement. Rather, we need to learn to tolerate difference of opinion and, what’s more, defend our views in civil and respectful ways. 

This does not mean that we should engage with discriminatory views. Bigotry should not be given a platform, as that allows it to thrive in a country with a devastating history of how it treats members of marginalized communities. But being conservative does not inherently mean that you are bigoted. It does not mean that you are wrong and need to be corrected. It does not mean that you are confused or misinformed. It simply means that you have a different approach to common issues. 

Assuming that we manage to get through the next couple of weeks without starting a civil war, on January 20 we will have a new president. With that, we will have a new opportunity to unify in the wake of the atrocities that have been committed under Donald Trump. Republicans and Democrats alike are horrified by what has recently transpired. Maybe the best way to prevent another Trumpian presidency is by taking a deep breath and listening to what others have to say. We probably won’t agree, but we’ll learn a lot about what happened and, most importantly, how to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

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