The Death of the Political Conversation

                “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”


                The year was 1948.  The Cold War had erupted and General Dwight Eisenhower, who had three years earlier orchestrated the demise of Nazi Germany, had just taken the role of President of Columbia University.  The “Red Scare” was in full swing and students, families and administrators at Columbia were in an uproar.  Columbia’s Marxist Study Group had invited the legislative director to speak at Columbia.  Eisenhower received a storm of mail, declaring that advocates of Communism and Marxism should not be allowed to speak on campus.  Eisenhower responded,

“The virtues of our system will never be fully appreciated unless we also understand the essentials of opposing ideologies.  I deem it not only unobjectionable but very wise to allow opposing systems to be presented by their proponents.  Indeed, I believe that arbitrary refusal to allow students-especially upon their own request-to hear the apostles of these false systems, would create in their minds a justified suspicion that we ourselves fear a real comparison between democracy and their dictatorship.”

Later that same year, Eisenhower once again was deluged with complaints regarding the creation of a Polish chair at the University, which agitated fear of communism spreading throughout the University.

“The facts of communism, for example, shall be taught here.  Ignorance of communism, fascism, or any other police-state philosophy is far more dangerous than ignorance of the most virulent disease.  Columbia will forever be bound by its loyalty to truth and the basic concepts of democratic freedom.  No intellectual iron curtain shall screen students from disturbing facts.”

Nearly 70 years later, right wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at University of California-Berkeley. Protestors gathered, windows were broken, fireworks were set off and rocks were thrown until the speech was cancelled.  Similar outrage has greeted conservative speakers at universities throughout the country over the past few years.  Charles Murray, a left leaning political scientist, has often been erroneously miscast as a racist and a white supremacist due to his study The Bell Curve.  A presentation of Murray’s at Middleberry College in Vermont was disrupted by protesters.

Since the early 1990’s, there has been a steady increase in political polarization. Each year, a study comes out stating that the United States is more polarized than it ever has been before.  This alone is startling.  Polarization has grown to such an extent that members of the Seattle City Council bragged to enthusiastic applause at a recent meeting that they didn’t have any friends who were conservative.

Starting in the 1990’s with the growth of partisan cable news and continuing with the rise of social media in the last decade; an individual now is able to choose not just how they get their information, but what the information is.  A Pew Research study of political opinions on social media concluded the following:

“In the current climate of negativity, many social media users choose to avoid confrontation with those with whom they disagree, which begins with ignoring material they find offensive. Pew reports that 83 percent of users simply ignore content they find controversial. When that fails, 31 percent of users tailor their feeds to see less of that content, and 27 percent may block or unfriend the source.”

Demographically, millennials are more flagrant in their avoidance of online political conversations and are less likely to vote while older generations engage in more political debate and vote in much higher numbers.  

The summation of this information has led to a society that struggles to adequately speak about important issues.  An individual choosing to confine himself to their online echo chamber, and only speak to like minded individuals, acquires nothing but a narrow mind and a lack of perspective.  Political discussion is often an emotional discussion, yet it doesn’t have to be a personal discussion.  Different global or civic perspectives are not the damnation of one’s soul or worth.

As evidenced by the happenings at Columbia University many years ago mirroring events happening all throughout the country now, the fight for the free and honest exchange of ideas remains an ever-growing challenge. External forces are pushing people toward ignorance and hasty thinking, it remains, as it always has, to the individual to challenge their own ideas as willfully as they would challenge another’s.