Last Tuesday’s election served to highlight the incredible breadth of political philosophies that the Columbia community contains.
We have our loyal Republicans and Democrats, but the major U.S. parties define only the smallest slice of a much larger ideological pie. At Columbia, you will find anarchists, libertarians, conservatives, reactionaries, militarists, socialists, communists of all stripes, and even a few students who are, in substance if not in self-identification, fascist. These opposing views often come into conflict in the classroom and in structured forums like this page. But in a social context, they are only occasionally discussed—except in November. The period around Election Day brings politics to the forefront of even idle chatter, replacing discussion of weather with talk of polls and pols and giving us a moment to ponder the relationship between our political and personal lives.
It is sometimes said that discussing politics should be avoided in social settings, especially if the involved parties strongly disagree. Though this aphorism is rarely followed among groups of student peers, especially among loquacious Columbians, there is still a sense that two people can and should be able to quarrel as political animals without influencing their social relationship. It is claimed that the political and social spheres are, and should always be, separate. It is claimed that Republicans and Democrats can and should be able to discuss abstract issues of national importance without coloring their perception of each other as people.
To some extent, we all know that the firewall is far from perfect. Many people have a political event horizon—an issue or position that they could never countenance in a friend. Very few Columbians, for example, would knowingly strike up a friendship with a neo-Nazi. Certain views are simply so antithetical to one’s own that one must view a person who holds them as fundamentally flawed. Even the most politically detached Columbian has at least some such nonnegotiable notions (in the above-mentioned neo-Nazi case, “Hitler was wrong”). When we encounter a person who rejects our fundamentals, we see the politics as simply a symptom of an intrinsic moral turpitude. In this way, we might use ideology as a gauge of personality: “A Republican who does not support a woman’s right to choose has an unacceptable paternalistic streak.” “A libertarian who does not believe that emergency rooms should be required to treat even those who cannot pay is callous and lacking in empathy.” “Anyone who seriously espouses racism, misogyny, or homophobia is intellectually and morally deficient.” Sometimes we can overcome our revulsion of the horribly wrong and become quite close with someone who is in every way our political opposite. Sometimes we cannot. Regardless, we must acknowledge that our view of a person’s politics colors our view of that person.
How, then, does an intellectually diverse place like Columbia remain collegial and civil? How do we remain on good terms even with those who we know to be deeply and fundamentally wrong? The complete separation that is suggested by formal etiquette is not possible. The judgment of character by politics, which I discussed above, functions subconsciously and automatically. It can be overcome but not eliminated. It is also questionable that complete separation is even desirable. Part of the benefit of a diverse campus is the sparks created when opposites collide. To avoid political discussion with the other side is to avoid an education in poor thinking that might, perhaps, help one avoid the same pitfalls.
For a college student, having a healthy discourse with someone who holds a wildly divergent viewpoint may be the ultimate test of maturity. To contest extreme ignorance without descending into anger and acrimony is difficult, especially for the convicted and passionate type of student that Columbia attracts. Perhaps the best way to approach odious ideological opponents is to acknowledge and accept their flaws, resign oneself to them, and focus on their capacity for redemption. Yes, the man or woman before you may have beliefs that betray a fundamental immorality, intellectual weakness, and unpleasant character. But, as much as it may seem these flaws are permanent and intractable, Columbians must have faith that they are not. If those who are incorrect can be corrected, if whatever caused the interlocutors to think horrible thoughts was a function of upbringing or lack of information or brainwashing, then perhaps the situation is salvageable. Maybe you can change their opinions, or maybe, just maybe, they can change yours.
Alex Collazo is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing and economics-philosophy. He is the president of CIRCA and a former Spectator head copy editor. I’m Just Saying runs alternate Mondays.
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