Embracing free speech on campus: Political engagement in the age of Trump

As our country now faces the reality of Donald Trump occupying the Oval Office, we at the College need a renewed commitment to free speech and engagement with opposing viewpoints; only then can we make tangible progress on the issues of concern to so many in our community.

In these pages, we have heard from conservatives who have ridiculed our liberal campus’s unwillingness to confront conservative views. And we have heard from liberals who have detailed the real trauma Trump’s victory has caused. I want to offer a new voice in the campus discourse as a liberal who is also liberal on the issue of free speech.

In the previous issue of the Record, Valerie Oyakhilome ’18 wrote an op-ed arguing that Scott Brown, former Republican Senator of Massachusetts, should not have been given a platform to speak at the College (“Hate speech, safe spaces: The College’s duty to protect and failure to follow through,” Dec. 7, 2016). While I respect Oyakhilome’s right to her opinion and willingness to publish it, I think it is grossly misguided.

Both Brown and Jennifer Granholm, former Democratic Governor of Michigan, spoke at an event two days after the Nov. 8 election in which they attempted to explain the results and what might come next. I thought the event was particularly well thought out and well executed, as they challenged each other in a civil discussion about the American political landscape. 

Brown’s inclusion in this event should not have been controversial. Not only did he serve our very own commonwealth in the U.S. Senate, but he developed a reputation as a moderate and bipartisan Senator in Washington. While I disagreed with a number of his statements, I did appreciate his perspective, and I did not hear him “embolden concealed racists and traumatize minority students” with his “pseudo-Trump hate speech” as Oyakhilome claims he did.

It is also important to point out that this event was scheduled well before the election took place, and attendance was optional. If students needed more time to grapple with the election results before debating them in an academic setting, that decision would have been entirely acceptable.

This event should be a model for political dialogue on campus. Nevertheless, some students clearly felt differently, Oyakhilome among them. She feels that our campus should be a “liberal space” and a “sanctuary,” free from all conservative views. 

Oyakhilome goes on to imply that conservatism and bigotry are one and the same, an utter falsehood that hurts the liberal cause and stifles real progress. This type of rhetoric only further divides us, doing nothing to solve the actual problems at hand.

If liberals truly want to make progress, we need a different approach. We should actively try to bring people into our movement, rather than actively trying to kick them out. Instead of viewing conservative students as “concealed racists,” we should look to them as potential allies in the fight for progress. When we employ the strategy of divisiveness and alienation for which Oyakhilome advocates, we unnecessarily limit ourselves and fail to put liberals in the powerful positions necessary to affect change. By isolating ourselves from viewpoints that we do not like, we, in fact, perpetuate the very harm that we try to prevent. When we fail to engage with the other side, we lose the opportunity to work with others toward progress and win people over with civil and reasoned discourse.

We need to acknowledge and understand opposing views in order to counter them with our own. And we need to offer better solutions to the issues of concern to others, rather than none at all. 

I spent Winter Study and spring semester of 2016 working on the Bernie Sanders campaign. A year ago at this time, I was knocking on doors in New Hampshire, talking to voters about the issues on their minds. Some conversations were short and unfulfilling, and I was told more than once to get lost. However, many of the conversations ended with a mutual respect for the other person’s perspective, even if I had not won them over to Bernie’s camp. 

After Trump’s election, it is more important than ever to engage in these conversations with people different than us. When we can add a human aspect to politics, putting faces to otherwise abstract beliefs and ideologies, we can better work together and achieve meaningful progress. 

Trump won because our country is divided. Many of us never see — let alone engage with — people of other backgrounds. The College is a place where we should be forced to confront different people and different viewpoints. We should welcome the opportunity to participate in such conversations on campus so we are best prepared to improve the wider world and create a compassionate and empathetic society.

We do not make progress by retreating to our corners and isolating ourselves from others’ beliefs. Progress comes when we get out there and engage with these opposing viewpoints, debating them on their merits and forging compromise where we still disagree. 

With Trump in the White House, it is easier than ever for us to grow apart. His divisive rhetoric and discriminatory policy proposals embody the worst of America. Yet I hope that Trump’s presidency can instead help us come together and appreciate the differences and diversity that make our country great. Engaging with opposing viewpoints here on campus is a great place to start.

Grant Raffel ’17.5 is a political science major from Palo Alto, Calif. He lives on Spring Street.

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for writing and publishing this–I agree 100%. Trump supporters (and conservatives in general) are a much more diverse group than I think we like to acknowledge, and dismissing even moderate, rational conservatives as hatemongers and bigots undermines our desire to make America a progressive and unified nation.

  2. Your opinion is deeply misguided.

    1. And this is the student newspaper of an elite college so perhaps you should offer some arguments and evidence to support your conclusory statement.

  3. As a “Deplorable” in the state of California who is somewhat concerned about expressing his conservative views in public, Freedom of Speech is a very important issue to me, and I think Grant’s article is well stated. I appreciate it. Good job Grant!

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