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The Importance of Open Political Discourse in the Wake of the Presidential Election

As a straight, white, non-American studying in the United States, I understand it is much easier for me to comment on the post-election climate from a removed stance. I do not pretend to fully appreciate how numerous minority groups are feeling at this point in time, in light of this imminent threat to their rights and identities. I realise my emotional response to the election is largely that of a third party seeing how this decision affects my classmates and friends, rather than that of a direct victim. I completely respect the varied ways in which those close to me are dealing with the events of the last couple of days, as it is a frightening and distressing time for many.

However, I write purely as a fellow student at Columbia University as I am extremely concerned by the way in which many of my peers have reacted to the election result. In person, I have heard of Trump supporters being ostracised in conversations pertaining to the outcome of the election. Scrolling down my newsfeed, I have seen numerous statuses insisting Trump supporters delete my classmates on Facebook or do not talk to them again, as well as many other silencing statements of this nature. I do not intend to defend Trump or rationalise the thought process of those who voted for him, but such encouragements of intellectual polarisation and dismissal greatly threaten the ability to ensure a political decision of this kind does not happen in future. Whilst I understand that the idea of interacting with voters who have, directly or indirectly, supported the election of a man who intends to oppress them, no doubt evokes an understandably emotional response from many students, these early stage reactions in the aftermath of the election have the potential to cause irreparable damage to intellectual communities, such as the one we have here at Columbia.

Open dialogue and interactions with those who hold different views from ourselves are invaluable to our progress both as students and voters, even if such views are deplorable by every standard of our personal moral codes. Encouraging such silencing of contrary voices results in an ushering of these voices into the intellectual shadows, where they will remain until the next election or the next emergence of a figurehead who represents these values. It is impossible to deal with our opponents if we do not know them, so rather than pushing them away, we must address them head on and force them to re-examine their views by making them a part of our political discussions. To silence such opinions is to deny their existence, and a state of denial is not conducive to change. As John Stuart Mill says, in a text familiar to most Columbia College students, enlightenment can only come from a liberty of discussion which allows us to address and, hopefully shape, the views of others whilst examining our own.

Of course, there are people whose xenophobic, racist and sexist values will never be shaken. Indeed, these people are immune to the profits of an intellectual community and are lost causes, content in their state of ignorance. However, they do not represent the entire body of Trump supporters. My classmates have every right to be hurt, bruised and disappointed in those who have threatened their various ways of life, but they owe it to the future of their country to give a voice to those people whose political and social opinions differ from their own. It will no doubt take time and patience to be able to give a platform to those peers whose ideas are so offensive to many of us at Columbia, but the ability to do so shows that we are better than those who intend to dwell in their state of political isolationism and dismiss their fellow citizens. Discourse is crucial for both social and political change, and in order to impact the political atmosphere itself, we must acknowledge the existence of opposing ideas and the people who hold such views. I would urge my classmates to, first and foremost, take care of themselves, but to look to maintain the open-mindedness and inclusivity that characterises them as fine students and voters, in order to shape the voters of tomorrow.

Henrietta Steventon


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