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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Politics: Doing it Right

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One of the most pressing problems facing the United States is that the political discourse of this country has broken down into a cacophony of partisan vitrial. Political identity has become all encompassing, red states listen to country music, love guns and God, while blue states and liberal voters are automatically assumed to be sexually promiscuous, urban dwelling, NPR listening, latte sippers. That is but a smattering of the ad hominem, which are used, in today’s political climate. Discourse has become bitter and increasingly personal, with cultural issues or news stories being the battlelines for opposing political viewpoints.

Everything is political because the political system is dysfunctional. The traditional avenues of democracy, elections, and the legislators they elect seem incapable of decisive actions based on compromise. We blame the problems facing this country on the “other side” and those who agree with that side. That the other side’s policies must be inherently wrong, all of their solutions are at best misguided and at worst sinister. This dysfunction and gridlock has permeated through American society, creating a yawning chasm through the body politic, which reaches down to everyday conversations. An off the cuff remark about the president can put cold water on a lively conversation, or result in a shouting match. How many times have you hear people say “I don’t like to discuss politics, it gets too nasty.”

But why can’t we discuss politics? It is a shame that people feel afraid to discuss the issues that affect us every day, as politics is not a spectator sport; America’s political institutions depend on the mass participation of the populace. The shouting matches, which fill the 24-hour news cycle, are not politics but theatre, with the commentariat playing archetypal roles of left versus right. The anonymity of the Internet has created a cross between a peanut gallery and a carnival of horrors; browsing any comment section of an article is an easy way to find bitter tirades marked by poor grammar and excessive punctuation.

As a Carleton student, it is all too easy to view the situation and condemn the right wing “crazies” in Congress and on Fox News. But we should ask ourselves, are we making the situation any better? Do we create an environment where holders of unpopular, often conservative, views are shunned? Carleton is a very liberal campus, in the American left wing sense of the word. Traditional liberalism emphasized open discourse and debate, the foundation of the liberal arts. It is not by design that Carleton is left wing; it attracts of students from backgrounds more inclined towards left wing politics. In fact, some students arrive on campus believing themselves to be fairly left wing, only to be confounded to see how left wing some Carleton students are. There are students who contrast this, yet they at times feel they cannot express their views without derision or even harsh condemnation from their peers. They hold views ranging from opposition to gun control or belief in God.

I am writing this article not as a conservative, but as a self-proclaimed liberal. I very much enjoy discussions with conservatives. They are the most engaging, formulating, and challenging I have ever had. They force me to defend views and positions which come naturally to me, from the benefits of the United Nations to universal health care. Without these experiences, how would I have the experience of expressing my views outside the left-wing bubble that is Carleton? It tempers my own propensity towards smug self-righteousness. In short, it makes me a better leftie, rather than relying on clichés that appeal to those who agree with me. I have to explain and defend my views with vigour, but not vitriol.

Discussions with conservatives are informative because I learn how they formed their views; what do they actually believe and how can I learn from them? This academic exercise should be the heart of the liberal arts experience; learning about new ideas from them and appreciating their approach to issues. Many conservatives are very intelligent, well-read individuals, from whom there is much to learn. It should be an integral part of our common learning experience. In fact, one of my longest running political sparing partners has become a very dear friend of mine on campus. Yet such conversations are dependent on a mutual attitude of respect. The assumption should be that the holder of these views is intelligent and has a good reason for holding these views. Ask yourself, why is your friend or classmate making this point and how do they explain it? Your response should not be to hector their “incorrect” views, but to question them. If there is a view of theirs you dislike, force them to defend it and explain their point. In this way it is possible to find the common ground necessary for good conversation. And there is no harm in changing your mind; indeed it is a sign of humility and intellect that you can.

One of the main arguments for silencing free speech is that it is offensive. And it is unfortunate when there is speech which offends people, yet we should expression caution in applying this epigraph. Our use of the term “offensive” has weakened its impact, making it harder to condemn ideas which are based on hate. Often what people say is not based on deliberate contempt, but is the result of a poor choice of words. But the answer to this is not to shut down, but engage. If there are views which are unpalatable, they should be rebuked through argument rather than assertions of identity or your opponent’s lack of it. Face the issue through open discourse rather than condemn or rely on impersonal bureaucratic processes.

As informed individuals we will meet those with different views than ours through the course of our lives. We should relish these meetings; they are a chance to expand our horizons. We will meet co-workers, relatives, old and even close friends who hold different views than ours. If we go through our time at Carleton without having open conversations, it would be a betrayal of the liberal arts ethos of this institution.

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