The organization I lead, Interfaith Youth Core, runs programs for students on how to build bridges across diversity. Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president, I have had to include a new line in just about every one of my speeches: diversity is not just the differences you like. In other words, I encourage campuses to be places where people of very different, even opposing, worldviews can achieve what IFYC defines as pluralism: respect for diverse identities, relationships between different communities, and a commitment to improve the common good.
Over the past two years, on just about every campus I have visited, someone in the audience has asked the question: “Whose views are so offensive that you can’t work with them?”
I respond by talking about how maintaining a wide circle of discourse is an essential quality of a diverse democracy, about how you can’t persuade people unless you talk (and listen) to them, and also about how I find myself learning from people that I disagree with and even find offensive. I make it a point to say that although I’m a social progressive myself, I enjoy conversations with the average Trump voter, but I’m probably not buying a cookie from the KKK bake sale.
Often, a discussion ensues on how supporting Trump means that you are denying the humanity of immigrants, people of color, women, LGBT folks, Muslims, people from the developing world ("shithole countries"), and the list goes on. Trump himself seems to expand it with every tweet.
Frequently, someone will say that their line is all Trump supporters – between 40 and 50 percent of the country – and a set of heads will nod in agreement.
It happens so often, I’ve actually come to assume this. Wrongly, it turns out.
Earlier this month I was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. One of the students I was most impressed with was an African-American male in the public policy program who, in a seminar, listened politely to a conservative student say something he disagreed with on racial matters, and then responded with a cogent argument from his progressive viewpoint.
The student came to my office hours and I complimented his handling of the situation. He told me that he is in conversation with conservatives all the time, people with views much harsher than the student he engaged in the seminar.
“Offensive stuff?” I inquired.“Sure, sometimes,” he said.
“What keeps you from walking away?” I asked.
“I can’t walk away,” he said. “I’m in the military. These are guys in my unit. I could save their lives in a battle, and they could save mine.”
Frankly -- and this is an embarrassing admission -- my contact with the military is so minimal, that I’d never even thought of that scenario.
Here were some of my reflections and questions as I mulled the conversation:
- This African American student/soldier was basically saying he didn’t have the luxury to disengage from people with whom he disagreed, or even that he found offensive. Another word for luxury is privilege. Is stating that you will not engage with forty to fifty percent of the country really a statement of massive privilege – that you are able to control your life in a free and open society so fully that you can substantively ignore a significant set of your fellow citizens rather than figuring out how to work with them?
- The reason the student/soldier couldn’t walk away was because he judged that the collective endeavor with which he was involved (the military) mattered more than the offense caused to his personal identity. Also, said collective endeavor has clear norms and rules regarding how its participants will engage one another. What other institutions in American life bring together people from a wide range of racial/religious/ethnic/gender/sexuality identities where the collective endeavor is so important that you will not walk away from someone whose views insult your identity? Hospitals? Schools? Athletic teams? Colleges? (If colleges are not on this list, should they be?)
- What happens when people draw their "walk away" lines closer and closer, and do in fact exit crucial collective endeavors because they decide they cannot work with someone who insults their identity? In other words, what happens if a Jew and a Muslim, because of their differences on the Middle East, decide they can no longer perform heart surgeries together? Co-teach an accounting course? Coach a Little League team?
Doesn’t a diverse democracy depend on a robust set of collective endeavors that bring people from different views and identities together in a set of activities that they judge to be more important than their personal identities? Isn’t the alternative much much worse?