Democratic Discussion: Lessons from 2016

By Peter Yang ’20

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It is reasonable to prophesize that 2017 is going to be a year of drama and uncertainty. Ever since the political shake-up sent a shockwave across the country, there has been no lack of political movements and clashing of opinions. From the controversial decisions made by our new president during his first week of office to the anti-abortion right rally in Washington last week, these events brought unsettling news. Unfamiliar with America’s complicated political landscape, I was nevertheless impressed by the actions taken by such diverse groups of people to defend the values they believe in. An indignant sentiment looms over the public forum and it continues to burn and boil ever since the night when the election results came out. I don’t comprehend this sentiment entirely, but I have learned much through witnessing as well as participating in the actions in response to the new presidency.  

I was not at all familiar with the concept of democracy. But after years of living in democratic societies I gradually began to gain insight of what constitutes a democracy. In an ideal democracy, concepts such as good or bad don’t exist, and no one should be labeling themselves and others as good or bad. Discussion, the heart of democracy, shouldn’t be hindered by difference in opinion, background and status. Instead, the difference is exactly what makes these discussions valuable so that both sides can learn something from each other and hopefully start to compromise. After all, without the exchange of ideas and the clashing of arguments, a democracy would mean nothing. In last year’s election, many progressive thinkers made a crucial mistake by essentially blocking all communications between themselves and those they deemed backward and therefore, unworthy. It is a human nature to prefer conversing with those who agrees with us, but it is equally important to know the other side of the argument if we are to exert influence over those who haven’t made up their minds or to convince our adversaries to look at issues from our point of view. A lack of open discussion in our society was what caused disbelief and confusion after the election as many Democrats underestimated the Republican voters. In the days leading up to the election, the internet was filled with messages that mercilessly vilified Donald Trump supporters, and sometimes all Republicans. These kinds of messages helped divide people into factions based on geography, education, income, race and ethnicity. And as a result of this division, an atmosphere of toxic antagonism was produced.

It is normal for those holding different views to antagonize each other but that antagonism should be aimed at political views and not at the people who hold them. What has been happening in our society is that we chose to demonize people living in completely different conditions from ours and stop questioning why we don’t like them. Even the most “progressive” among us share memes on social media labeling others as ignorant, hateful and selfish simply because they don’t agree with us, then repeatedly tell themselves that the voices of these people simply don’t deserve to be considered. When we try to spread our messages, and influence the views of others, all we did was tell those who already agree with us why we are right and they are wrong. We essentially build up a huge “safe” bubble and cuddle with our friends inside, while blocking our ears so all the noise made by people who don’t agree with us could not be heard.  I have seen very few examples of people walking up to a political adversary with a smile and simply asking: “hello, can we sit down and discuss why we are here doing what we are doing?” Instead, all I have seen was people hurling themselves against each other on the streets during rallies and protests, armed to the teeth, shouting profanity.

Aristotle wrote in his Metaphysics: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” As members of an educated community, I think we can all take a moment to think about how this lesson can help us endure what is to come in the next four years.  I have heard tales about the founding fathers of this country they call the greatest on earth, about how a group of men with different views and beliefs came together and engaged in the rational discussion that resulted in the birth of a nation. We members of an educated community ought to act as vanguards and pioneers in changing the way we act, as well as in healing a nation deeply divided.

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