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Beyond polarization: Challenge others and yourself, and you will learn a lot

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.

Another view

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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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/11/2017 - 07:33 am.

    I hope commenters here will read this piece and, first, learn how overwhelming the liberal advantage on college campuses is and how it prevents a free and reasonable discussion, and, second, understand that they should stop dismissing those who disagree with them as ignorant racist xenophobic rubes (isn’t calling them this way a microagression, by the way?) and listen to what those people may say. Some learning may actually take place!

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/12/2017 - 09:44 am.

      That’s not how you do it

      Placing the blame of inability to communicate with others by suggesting that they’re unreasonable and dismissive is not a great first step.

      I grew up being picked on for being smart and quiet, for being “liberal” in a red state. I used to think that we should find a middle ground, and honestly I still do. But I no longer believe it will be possible till some disaster forces us to work together.

      In the meantime, I’m tired of being bullied and I’m simply not up to finding patience in my heart anymore. My filter is broken and my silence is worn out. I’m open to learning, but I’m not interested in pretending that what’s not true is true. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it is fallacy to insist that all opinions are of equal value.

      In fact, I honestly believe that it was the cultivation of valuing opinion over facts, celebrating everyone’s uniqueness as if the uniqueness itself was valuable rather than what you did with it, and giving equal weight to unequal information that has lead us to this polarization. Believe it or not, conservatives are just as guilty as liberals, if not more, for being “snowflakes.” Look at one of the big reasons people said they voted for Trump–they felt like Hillary voters thought they were dumb. True or not, that’s what many people said. Their feelings were hurt, and so they’re punishing the people that they feel hurt them.

      By the way, part of the problem is the perceived definitions of conservative and liberal. “Conservative” is lumped in with “Republican”, “small government”, “religious”, “fiscally conservative”, “pro-business”, and the like. While “liberal” is often portrayed as the opposite, which, if you think about it is kind of unfair. These definitions are neither accurate for most people, nor accurate in their original political meaning. I am a liberal, which is often jeered and smeared as being “pro-big-government” (with negative connotation, of course), “anti-religion” (really? really??), “pro-abortion” (seriously, that’s not the same as “pro-choice” and you know it), “anti-business” (more accurately, anti-business-as-people, but pro-economic growth–but nah, no one wants nuance), etc. I’m actually a very conservative Democrat, and my beef with people who claim the “conservative” title, well actually mostly politicians who claim the conservative title, is that they are not terribly conservative, just selective.

      By the way, if you feel dumb or bad when you express your opinions, maybe the most appropriate reaction is not to double down but to think about it for a minute. So few people do that.

      In the meanwhile, I’m not going to subject myself to the Handicapper General just because someone thinks I’m a “liberal elitist academic”. I’ve eaten government cheese, I’ve paid for my own things since I was 12, I’ve fixed my own car, and I’ve done interior construction. I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, with the help of other taxpayers (for at least my public education and scholarships for college). It’s not like I don’t know what it means to be hard working and having to work my way up. I am just realistic enough to know that no one does anything on their own.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/12/2017 - 09:04 am.

    Just one correction…

    Manichean thinking and subsequent sociopolitical polarization existed long long long before door to door canvassing in the 1970s not just in the US but throughout human history.

    I personally think Manicheanism is a weak explanation. What we’ve seen in the last few decades is another resurgence of reactionary anti-intellectualism, something historians have referred to as “Great Awakenings”, the US has at least three such era’s since the 1820s.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/12/2017 - 09:55 am.

    What’s the point of dialogue?

    For some reason the standard remedy for “polarization’ is always: “dialogue”, but what do we expect dialogue to accomplish, and why?

    To begin with, what do we mean by: “Polarization”. If a majority on a college campus are “liberal”, that’s not a polarized campus, it’s a liberal campus. The existence of a smaller group of conservatives is just that, a smaller group of conservatives. So it the issue polarization or discrimination? The function of “dialogue” can very different depending on how you frame the issue. The function of dialogue on a truly polarized campus would be to resolve conflict. The function of dialogue on an intolerant campus would be to break down majority bias and discrimination.

    The problem with using dialogue to resolve conflict is that dialogue doesn’t actually resolve genuine conflict. Dialogue can resolve misunderstandings but when conflict are not based on misunderstandings dialogue has limited powers of resolution. A better understanding of racism doesn’t make racism acceptable for instance. When people understand each others positions, but disagree, dialogue won’t lead to agreement.

    A similar problem can arise when dialogue is used to break down discrimination. Since discrimination isn’t necessarily unjust (Neo Nazis don’t receive official recognition on college campuses for instance) the mere presence of discrimination doesn’t trigger a need for resolution, or rather, the resolution is that certain types of discrimination are justified. Furthermore, although a person can “feel” persecuted, that doesn’t necessarily mean they ARE being persecuted. So is a conservative that arrives on a liberal college campus a victim of persecution, or are they just in a minority?

    Finally, the characteristics of a minority are not irrelevant. Neo Nazi’s would be a minority on the U of M campus, but that wouldn’t necessarily qualify them as victims of persecution or unjust discrimination. If a Neo-Nazi is sitting in a history class covering material about the Holocaust (which they deny happened), one could expect that they’d feel alienated, but what kind of dialogue resolves that?

    Sometimes dialogue is actually a bad idea. Dialogue can actually legitimize illegitimate perspectives and create space for obfuscation, confusion, denial, and intolerance.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk people, but sometimes when you talk to people you discover that you have irreconcilable differences. Sometimes you talk to people and discover that they’re point of view deserves no respect, that their facts are wrong, and that their reasoning is bogus. So taking to people doesn’t necessarily resolve anything or break down “polarization”. Often times when people with different points of view talk to each other… we call it an: “argument”.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 05/13/2017 - 09:02 am.

    The problem is most issues that divide us are not “facts”.

    I believe we pay way too much in taxes and Big Govt is wasteful and cumbersome. Most liberals don’t, no facts just views. I don’t believe 1 penny of tax dollars should go to a place where they perform abortions, liberals do, no facts just view points. I believe in strong borders and Americans have the right to decide who enters our country, again views. It is not facts that divide us it’s viewpoints. Exchanging viewpoints is a good thing…

    What is happening at colleges is students are taught that their view is fact (you see it here at Minnpost) and booing Betsy Devos to not listen to her is ok. It is not!!

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