Bursting Duke's liberal bubble

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Duke is often referred to as a bubble, where students live comfortably in a world far removed from the stark reality of the greater Durham community. 

But we are also removed politically. Like many top tier institutions, Duke attracts a liberal demographic that isn’t representative of the national landscape. In other words, we are in a liberal bubble.

Even though I am nearing the end of my third year at Duke, only a handful of times have I been forced to acknowledge my political bias. One of those times was earlier this semester, when I overheard two graduate students in Sanford discussing Trump’s foreign policy. One was vehemently exalting the president’s foreign policy strategy, outlining the benefits in great detail. I felt myself growing frustrated as my liberal bias kicked in. How could he commend Trump’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan or his “peace deal” with North Korea? But as I tried to think of counterarguments to his points, I blanked. I was unable to articulate why I was against Trump’s policies. Why couldn’t I soundly defend my own beliefs or take down the ones I so passionately opposed? 

The reason is that I rarely find myself in a position where I have to back up my political opinions. I’ve always been surrounded by like-minded people. I grew up in a liberal household, where my dad would spend his evenings watching Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Rachel Maddow. Those are the voices I grew up with, and when I came to Duke, those voices were amplified. In the past year, I have attended talks by progressive speakers like DNC Chairman Tom Perez, Senator Bernie Sanders and NBC Political Director Chuck Todd. My peers are left-leaning as well: most of my friends cried with me when Donald Trump was elected president, and they were also by my side to lament the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. 

For many, especially those who feel marginalized by certain right-wing policies, these emotions are valid and should be vocalized. For others like myself, it can be difficult to pinpoint why we feel an instinctive and almost emotional attachment to our political beliefs. Jonathan Haidt presents a compelling theory in “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”: the idea of the elephant and the rider. Our emotional side is the elephant and our rational side is the rider. Sitting atop the elephant with reins in hand, the rider appears to call the shots. But the six ton elephant is ultimately the decision-maker. When the two disagree, the rider cannot overpower the elephant. This is all to say that we choose sides based on our emotions and then use our head to rationalize our choices.

The purpose of higher education is to challenge the elephant. I came to university to engage in debate, to ask hard questions and to uncover deeper truths. While I have been challenged in subjects like ethics and history, I feel that I lack exposure to the other side of the political aisle. Perhaps it’s because professors at most elite liberal arts schools are relatively homogeneous in political affiliation, and academic institutions that create liberal bubbles foster a culture that implicitly excludes conservative voices from discussion. This has serious repercussions. John Stuart Mill warned that the “peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” 

Students should seek out the opinions of intelligent people with whom they disagree, for intellectual growth comes from challenging your own ideas to bolster your argument. A Ted Talk by Williams College graduate Zachary Wood called “Why we should listen to views we find offensive?” expands on the idea that we get stronger, not weaker, by engaging with the other side. That’s why Wood, an African-American student, invited John Derbyshire and Charles Murray—two authors who have written about and supported white supremacist theories—to speak at his school, knowing that he would be giving them a platform for ideas that he abhorred. The objective is to gain understanding by engaging with the very ideas that make us uncomfortable. 

To uphold the commitment to education and inclusion at Duke, and for the political health of our nation, it is crucial that everyone’s views are challenged—liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between. As Duke students, we should attempt to escape our echo chamber by seeking out environments that encourage us to defend our viewpoints. One attempt I’ve made recently was downloading an app called Read Across the Aisle, which tracks your media political bias. Whenever you read the news, the app shows the political orientation of each source and reminds you to check out news from another angle if it detects that you've been reading from one side of the aisle for too long. It turns out that there are other great news outlets besides NPR and the New York Times.

Ignoring opinions you don’t agree with doesn't make them disappear. To progress in the face of adversity and to reach consensus in an increasingly polarized nation, we must commit to acquiring a deeper understanding of humanity.

Alicia Sun is a Trinity junior. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.


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