Imagine you are a social justice warrior in college. You believe that Bernie Sanders’ ideas are novel. You are passionate about raising the minimum wage. You believe women have a right to free and safe abortions. You think college tuition ought to be free for all Americans.
Now, imagine that you are the only student among 20,000 who holds these beliefs. Not only that, people think you are an inherently bad person for stating those opinions. They tell you that you’re a stupid and entitled idealist and an ignorant communist. They casually comment how people like you are vile because you are from an urban area and you voted for Hillary Clinton. You are a proverbial punching bag in class discussions. According to the people you see every day, you are not just wrong, you are evil. You are not just of a different opinion, you are hateful. You don’t just disagree, you are the enemy.
This is me. Except I hold conservative beliefs, and the rest of my peers are leftists.
I applied to the Ford School of Public Policy because I wanted to narrow my studies to my passions and pursue a career in policy analysis. I knew that by enrolling in a public policy school, let alone the University of Michigan, I would have to endure heated political debates. I welcomed the challenge. I was excited to sharpen my debate skills and question my own opinions by hearing a diverse array of perspectives.
After just two and a half months in the public policy undergraduate program, I am fearful. I have been called racist for criticizing some affirmative action programs. My classmates claim that my unabashed support of Israel stems from a baseless hatred of Arabs. They call conservatives like me rednecks, brainwashed by Fox News and detached in desolate “flyover states.” I have been called a bigoted elitist before even getting the chance to open my mouth.
Due to this pervasive toxic rhetoric, I now sit quietly and hold my tongue. Say a classmate claims that women who are pro-life are hypocritical and indoctrinated by the patriarchy, and multiple people chime in in agreement while the professor nods her head. I avoid putting a big target on my head and lie low. I silently listen while my opinions are called sexist, Islamophobic, bigoted and fascist. Most of my professors are not objective facilitators; rather, they encourage students to marry their ideologies while deeply hating all others.
I am not the only one taking note of the threatening classroom environment.
I overheard a peer accusing another student of being a white supremacist because he wanted to “play devil’s advocate” and suggest that water purification and distribution should not be wholly funded by the government.
Another classmate pulled me aside one day while walking out of a lecture on gun control. She whispered in my ear, “I am a conservative, too.” I asked her why she was whispering. With fear in her eyes, she said, “I don’t want people to hate me.”
The vilification of dissenters and self-aggrandizing is antithetical to the mission of higher education. A college campus should be a place to challenge one another respectfully and form opinions by hearing a diversity of perspectives. The university strives to cater to those who feel even mildly offended, but I and those like me are easy targets for insults.
I’m not asking the university to silence liberals’ offensive statements, and I’m not asking anyone to cater to me because I hold unpopular opinions. I’m asking my peers and my professors, especially in a public policy program, to foster open and considerate dialogue. The university and students alike tout the diversity, equity and inclusion initiative, but there is little to no emphasis on diversity of thought. That must change.
Instead of shouting down speakers, hold a separate event to debate their perspectives. Instead of throwing out words like “bigot” and “xenophobic,” listen to the other side’s reasoning. Develop empathy while not assuming the worst of people with different opinions. Open-mindedness and respect are critical once we graduate from our ideologically homogenous university and find ourselves in a diversity of environments.
We all want a world that is peaceful, inclusive and prosperous. We just have different ideas on how to get there. So, let’s talk to one another. Let’s listen and ask questions. Maybe we will both learn something.
Talia Katz is a junior majoring in public policy the University of Michigan. This piece is reprinted with permission from the Michigan Daily.