Are modern universities becoming eco-chambers, places where political diversity and discourse are squandered? Liberal Millennial Sunny Chen takes a look at the current situation in universities across America and assesses whether classrooms have become a place where disagreeing perspectives can’t coexist.
Angleton, Texas is a small rural town of about 20,000 residents, and like most small, rural towns in Texas, it is overwhelmingly conservative. It also happens to be where I grew up. Immersed in a political culture different from my own – I was more often than not the only liberal in the room, or, at least, the only one willing to speak up about it – by necessity I learned to be accepting and open to opposing viewpoints. My friends, my teachers, my neighbors – most of them were liberal, and this afforded me the understanding that “the other side” are not monsters.
They’re good people that I just happened to disagree with on a number of social and/or political issues. I viewed myself as a moderate liberal and took pride in my ability to view and hear arguments against what I believed without immediately creating a mental block in my head.
Because we lived in such a small town, my parents made it a point to send me out into the world, so I could see what was beyond little old Angleton, Texas, so I could “expand my horizons” (and tour the great American universities). This resulted in a Facebook Newsfeed comprised of an odd mix of die-hard Trump supporters screaming about the inadequacies of liberal crybabies, and radical leftists ranting about the resurgence of fascism, and every political opinion in between.
I used to make a point of stopping to read the posts criticizing abortion and Black Lives Matter and supporting gun rights: I didn’t want to be just another politically-minded millennial incapable of tolerating or considering viewpoints contrary to my own. I believed in genuinely trying to understand and appreciate the intricacies of opposing arguments, and I believed that doing so was the only way forward towards both compromise and progress.And I still believe that. With all my heart, I still believe those principles to be true.
But sometime after I entered college, I stopped intentionally confronting the other side. I stopped seeking to understand and appreciate their beliefs, and I started to scroll past conservative posts as if ignoring them would make them any less real.
Somewhere along the way, I became afraid and/or intolerant. I didn’t get to the point of blocking Trump supporters or deleting conservative friends or deciding that all Trump supporters or conservatives were monsters or evil or fascists intent on destroying peace and freedom, but I stopped trying to understand them. And in the end, isn’t that the same thing?
How can we accept political ideas without judgment?
Many universities, mine included, seek to create atmospheres friendly to social and political discourse, where all ideas are accepted without judgment. They emphasize building a culture of tolerance and enforcing a responsibility for respect and understanding in each student.
But I wonder if, despite these efforts, colleges are echo chambers, places where political and social disagreements go to die. Colleges have long been known to be liberal breeding grounds as well as places where ideologies are solidified.
Certainly, there are platforms for discourse about sociopolitical issues, but even those tend to be framed in terms of degrees of conservativism or, more often, liberalism. There are limited to no opportunities for discourse between opposite ends of the spectrum – and how can there be, when our society’s liberal protestors argue for “No safe space for racists” while conservative agitators counter “Black Lives Matter” with the retort that “All Lives Matter”?
How can there be, when we – myself certainly included – proclaim loudly that we “don’t understand how someone could support Trump” whilst we shove our fingers in our ears when such people try to explain why they do. And even when we do manage to sit down with “the other side,” all too often we listen only to explain to them why they’re wrong.
As much as the next liberal, I can’t stand President Trump. But shouting down conservatives – and vice versa – will only result in an impasse, a stalemate that keeps both sides from achieving what they desire.
It’s not the institution that is at fault. Rather, it is we as individuals who are contributing to the echo chamber. It is easy and comfortable and honestly much more convenient to engage with the alike, rather than to seek out the different. Particularly in universities that are notoriously and overwhelmingly of one political philosophy, it often feels to be too much trouble to actively find and partake in a discussion with the other side, one that we know will by definition be latent with disagreement and clash. And because there aren’t too many of “the other side” to begin with, it becomes even more inconvenient and unappealing to try to appreciate differences in opinion. The result is prolonged and continuous interaction with only those who agree with us, and consequently, prolonged and continuous neglection of those who disagree with us.
Blocking people on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever social media platform you prefer, actively avoiding or shouting down those who harbor opposing viewpoints – doing these will not make those perspectives any less real or substantial. Ignoring “the other side” won’t make them disappear.
Calling them “monsters” or “fascists” or “crybabies” won’t move us in any desirable direction, and will more than likely entrench contrasting viewpoints. Rather, the only way forward is to approach controversial topics with understanding from both sides, with the genuine intention of considering the opposing argument as your own. After all, the underlying objective is the same, whether Tea Party conservative or socialist: to make the country and the world a better place.