A new wave of political activism is polarizing America.
Both left and right are throwing caution to the wind for the sake of making points. Important issues are being raised, but at the cost of growing division.
Donald Trump has exploited the chaos, building more and more momentum for his campaign. If you think he’s finished, think again—just look at his last rally. If we don’t want him to be president, we’re going to have to set aside our differences and proceed cautiously.
Although this is a bipartisan problem, I am going to focus here on the political left. That is not because the right doesn’t engage in its own brand of controversial activism (as anyone can see from the Oregon standoff, asinine draw Muhammad parties or Trump rallies). Rather, it’s because most of us at Duke are left-leaning, and because I personally support many liberal causes. My goal is to share my observations in good faith.
I’m conflicted. I want to praise activists for starting difficult conversations and striving to build a better society. As a result of their often thankless work, issues such as racial justice, income inequality and implicit bias are now being talked about. That said, I fear some efforts may be backfiring. I fear they may even be feeding the type of resentment behind Trump’s success.
His rise isn’t the left’s fault; that responsibility rests with the GOP. He’s tapping into latent American anger, amplified by the past decade’s Republican agenda. However, some of his popularity is certainly attributable to leftists alienating Middle America. I’m not alone in this belief; Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, conservative scholar James Kalb, Rupert Cornwell of The Independent and others share it.
What is going wrong? Are efforts to build a more inclusive world backfiring? Quite possibly.
I see three problems: first, many of the tactics employed evoke the wrong emotional responses. Second, too many battles are being fought. Lastly, an elitist, exclusionary atmosphere has inadvertently been created.
Let’s ask ourselves: is it productive to hold signs like “Rush KKKG,” to spit on people listening to a speaker we dislike or to jump on stage at a Bernie Sanders rally? Does disrupting a Trump speech show his supporters the blight of racism? Do hair-trigger “Islamophobia” accusations build understanding? Does shaming people into silence genuinely change their views? Does protesting art exhibitions or yoga classes make people want to be more culturally sensitive?
I could go on. The answer is no. These strategies provoke anger, outrage and retaliation. They do not build understanding. Sometimes they are necessary to jump-start systemic change, but their egregious overuse has been counterproductive.
What is more important: building solidarity to stop a Trump presidency or confronting every instance of cultural/racial/social insensitivity? Are Yik Yak, fraternities and offensive professors truly the biggest problems in society right now? I don’t know, but my instinct tells me there are bigger fish to fry. Demanding resignations, boycotting speakers and issuing ultimatums does not make friends. Often, it makes enemies. At least, it fatigues potential supporters.
Moreover, these well-intentioned efforts can create an atmosphere that is hard for many to navigate. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, a staunch liberal, put it well: “Even those of us on the left feel the wrath of the leftier-than-thou brigade from time to time…for someone without my advantages, I can easily see how it might feel almost impossible to express an unpopular opinion without tying yourself in knots.”
With the election coming up, it is more important than ever not to alienate allies. The drama on college campuses does not occur in a vacuum. The right-wing press documents every instance of activists stepping over the line. Situations that might ordinarily seem like innocuous overreactions or growing pains are feeding the popularity of a candidate with incalculable destructive potential.
If we think the situation is bad now, just picture the Wikipedia page for Trump reading “45th President of the United States.” Stop saying it can never happen. It can.
There is a solid chance that he could win in November with the help of disgruntled Democrats; a recent poll found that 20 percent of Democrats would be willing to vote for him. Rather than confronting people directly, angry Americans can vent into the ballot box. To say that would be catastrophic is an understatement.
We must all do our parts to stop giving him ammunition. The evidence is irrefutable—his supporters cite a hatred of “political correctness” as one of their primary motivations. Any action which furthers the perception of the left and/or Democrats as being too PC is tantamount to campaigning for Trump. It doesn’t matter how noble the cause—we must use utmost discretion and choose our battles.
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic phrased it perfectly, “Citizens who oppose Trumpism are going to have to…persuade more Americans to adopt those norms voluntarily, for substantive reasons, not under duress of social shaming or other coercion.”
That means practicing enormous self-restraint and non-violence. That means being prepared to respond rather than react when someone offends. That is hard—I’m not sure I could do it under pressure—but it is our best bet for combatting the anger Trump has unleashed. For example, look at the video of Rose Hamid silently protesting at one of his rallies. She exposed wrong while providing no convenient rationalization for retaliation. I found her silence louder than any words.
As students at a prestigious university, we have great power to shape the national conversation. It is up to us to use that power responsibly. At every step of the way, we must ask ourselves whether the action we are taking, however justified in the moment, is contributing to the broader dialogue.
We have a choice now. We can focus on building understanding, or we can focus on making noise. If we choose the latter, let’s start painting the White House gold for our next president, Donald John Trump.
Ted Yavuzkurt is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. If you have a comment for him, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.