We are students in PA 1401, Organizing for the Common Good, at the University of Minnesota who decided to work on the issue of polarization.
Whether you are conservative or liberal, student or professor, there is a problem on our campus that cannot be ignored any longer. The polarization of groups, opinions, and ideas on campus is an issue that is not only important to address, it is also essential to bar its growth and instead advocate for conversation. A group of students, who hold all political leanings, were determined to take on an issue that could no longer be ignored. We began our journey as seven students looking to close the divide among different opinions and create a conversation about why every opinion should be valued.
We met with as many people as possible, students and faculty, of all political leanings to learn how polarization affects them. One professor we talked to agreed that the number of liberal students on campus was far greater than the number of conservative students; however, he then proceeded to say that conservative students sometimes walk into class “expecting there to be bias against them.” Also, he believes that conservatives tend to take a “few instances” where conservative opinions are being attacked and try to make it appear as something that is occurring on every campus, which he feels is unfair for conservatives to do. As we concluded our meeting with this professor we wanted to ask for any advice about what our next steps moving forward could be and he simply replied, “You could pick a new project.” Now this could be viewed differently by different people, maybe as sarcastic or as a joke, but to say that to us, students, who care about this issue, seemed disrespectful because it delegitimized our group’s efforts to solve this issue.
On the other hand, we met with another professor who held a quite different opinion. When asked about the issue of polarization on campus, this professor immediately agreed with our group’s efforts. He said that he has witnessed an opposition to conservatives on campus, and in the nation, that has never been seen before. He believes that this is unfortunate because, in his experience, classrooms with multiple opinions function better and the students learn more. This professor also acknowledged that often professors who are on extreme sides of the political spectrum motivate their students to become more extreme in their stances as well. He does not believe that this is necessarily a bad thing, but thinks that this should also be allowed for professors who hold opinions of the right. When leaving this meeting, the professor offered one piece of advice, which is in direct correlation of our motivation to address this issue: Allow yourself to be challenged by opposing ideas and beliefs while maintaining respect for the person who you are conversing with and for their opinions.
When digging deeper into how our country became so deeply divided we came across the Manichean (good versus evil) mindset. Harry Boyte, founder of the Center of Democracy and Citizenship (now Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College), says Manichaeism has “shaped America and the millennial generation.” Manichaeism is rooted in door-to-door canvassing invented in the 1970s, which depended on demonization for success. When one canvasses for an issue the canvass paints a black and white picture of bad vs. good, labels the opponents the enemy and moves on from there. This radically oversimplified frame has spread across society, and is used by talk news shows, social media, and political campaigns. It leads to tremendous polarization and the idea that we have nothing in common with the other side. This polarizing approach has increasingly left its mark on nearly every campaign, furthered by new technology, as a recent NBC news report has found.
A small challenge
After spending this semester talking with those we would normally see as disagreeing with us we have come to learn that we really have much more in common with them than one would think. We encourage everyone to try a small challenge. Find someone you disagree with — it can be on any issue, big or small. Sit down with them, ask tough questions, answer their questions honestly, and most important, learn their story.
Challenge other people and challenge yourself; we promise you will learn a lot not just about them but about yourself as well.
Charlie Carlson, Kat Gehl, and Zach Maron are students at the University of Minnesota. Fellow students Campbell Fisher, Katherine Xu, Spencer Wilkins, and Dupree MacBryer also contributed to this commentary.
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