The Death of Dialogue and Rise of Rhetoric: How Cultural Sensitivity Can Save the Claremont Colleges

These past few years have seen a rise in extremism across the country. From Trump’s demagoguery to Sanders’ dogmatism, explosive rhetoric has drowned out calls for political unity. ‘Never Trumpers’ watched their own Republican Party undergo the greatest ideological shift since the 70s. Establishment Democrats suffered a monumental defeat in 2016, yet continue to offer weak presidential candidates. Reactionary conservatives and radical liberals have cultivated new, vocal bases willing to challenge evil online and in the streets. These new political warriors continue to talk at, rather than with, each other and elect charismatic, air-headed ideologues. The gears of Congress have ground to a halt. Bipartisanship seems almost obsolete.

The shockwaves of radicalism hit the Claremont Colleges as suddenly as the rest of the nation. Many Claremont students, armed with top-tier vocabularies and an unrelenting  political drive, have begun bulldozing opposing viewpoints on social media. Claremont students at both ends of the spectrum employ extreme measures, such as doxxing and social stigmatization, to advance their beliefs. Reflecting similar phenomena on the national level, thoughtful dialogue has stalled at the 5Cs.

This breakdown in discourse has had terrible consequences. Topics seemingly removed from the political sphere have become battlegrounds. Last semester, the debate over the change to grading policy in light of the COVID-19 crisis quickly became heated. Vocal supporters of a universal grading policy openly attacked supporters of an opt-in grading policy online, calling them “fascists” and blacklisting those who made their views known. The end result was that students holding likely-majority views were afraid of voicing their thoughts. In this way, those in favor of allowing individuals to decide for themselves whether to keep letter grades during the pandemic were brutally bullied and silenced. Their views on how academics should be conducted became solely a moral and political stance in their peers’ eyes, and as a result, it became much easier to ostracize them. 

Because of this aggression, Pomona College prevented the Student Life from attending a pivotal faculty meeting on grading policy. Despite the stakes of what was discussed, students may never know what was said behind closed doors. Last year, the Pitzer College’s student senate banned the Claremont Independent from covering a climactic vote on the cancelation of study abroad programs in Israel. Other student publications were allowed to attend. This censorship deprived our readers access to a serious debate gripping the Claremont Colleges and was a blatant show of political bias on the college’s part. Voices that might have disagreed with majority views were not only discouraged but actively barred from attending by an ostensibly-democratic institution.

This shutting down of discourse is directly harmful to the democratic principles organizations like Pitzer’s student senate claim to represent. Democracy without dialogue means the triumph of force. This reality may not seem dangerous when your side––in your eyes, the just side––is winning, but it can be catastrophic down the road. When we are no longer free to question or examine them, ideas and policy cannot be properly vetted before shaping our lives. It’s a brute force approach that leaves a lot of collateral damage in its wake. “Might is right” seems like a viable approach until it’s wrong–––until moralistic policy leads to preventable death and suffering. 

We are optimistic that this era of political militancy will come to an end, but this improvement will require a resurgence of dialogue. Liberals, conservatives, and independents will need to speak the same language to pave a common path forward. In a college context, students will need to tone down their rhetoric and respect each others’ cultural-political norms. 

This change might seem like a strange requirement, but culture and politics remain profoundly intertwined in America. The community you live in often has a powerful impact on your political views, and each carries with it its own cultural-political norms, the social behaviors considered common and acceptable within a political culture. As a result, people are often hesitant to interact with each other and end up forming their own pockets of culture, a problem that has only grown as our country has become more polarized. For example, religious evangelicals of the South and far-left Californians often have few social standards, phrases, and norms in common.

When considerate people live abroad, they typically try to adapt their actions to be respectful to  local customs and cultures. The understanding is that without being respectful of others’ preferences, they would not be able to function in the workplace or as a member of society. We may visit countries whose laws or norms we consider deeply unjust, but we also understand that meaningful, robust change comes gradually, through compromise and mutual respect. And we never try to force cultural change on a country so different to our own.

While this sort of cultural sensitivity seems obvious at the international level, many of us fail to realize how important it is within the United States. Effective dialogue requires us to be cognisant of all sorts of socio-political cultures. Walking into the RNC shouting about your last trip to Planned Parenthood or waddling around the DNC wearing a “Build the Wall” t-shirt guarantees nobody will engage critically with your ideas. These examples are intentionally antagonistic, but less-aggressive signals of cultural-political allegiance can similarly block discourse. Without common language, we cannot advance shared solutions.

We need to adjust our rhetoric to encourage vibrant debate at key points of contention. This change in rhetoric is the only way to prevent cultural differences from obstructing dialogue. This adjustment requires compromising our word choice when possible so that both sides speak the same language. Certain words and phrases that can aggressively signal other political beliefs are usually irrelevant to a topic at hand. Using buzz-phrases can quickly become annoying if they are not necessary for furthering an argument; they turn off listeners. For instance, many conservatives unnecessarily quote the Bible during political discussions. Many liberals, by contrast, introduce themselves with an unsolicited list of preferred pronouns. These actions needlessly hinder discussions at hand. At the same time, both sides need to strive to be accepting of these cultural-political differences and not demonize each other because of them.

This level of tolerance will require tremendous levels of empathy and compassion from both sides. It will require that people cast aside their preconceived notions and embrace a willingness to believe that the other side acts in good faith. This crucial step will not be easy, but it’s essential if we’re to move forward as a nation. Without these virtues, strength, not justice, will be the law of the land. Decisions will be made in the dark, and we will all be left to bear the consequences of ignorance, silence, and lack of empathy. Demonizing opposition kills democracy more surely than anything else. But its preservation begins at the individual level, when one person decides to abandon their preemptive anger and really listen to what another has to say. We can do that, here at the 5Cs. So let’s do it. Let’s bring discourse back to college. Who knows? We may learn a thing or two.

 

Abbas Ali and Liam MacDonald, Editors-in-Chief

Will Gu and Alec Sweet, Editors-in-Chief Emeritus

Jordan N. Esrig, Managing Editor

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