Dialing Back the Rhetoric

Mike Spivey describes his experience serving as the conservative on his college’s postelection panel.

December 8, 2016

I’m a mathematician. I’m teaching Calculus II and mathematical structures for computer science this term. I write blog posts on topics like the best way to determine whether two lines intersect in three-dimensional space. Yet at 3:30 p.m. on the day after Trump’s election I found myself on a hastily convened panel with five of my faculty colleagues, facing an emotionally charged crowd of about 400 students, faculty and staff.

Our mission -- it felt like we were a team in that moment -- was to help our campus make sense of the results of an election that many found shocking and even frightening. The rest of the panel consisted of professors of politics and government, religion, gender and queer studies, and African-American studies. Why was a mathematician on the panel? I was the person the university found to give the conservative perspective.

After explaining my function on the panel, I said the following:

"It’s kind of odd that I’m here to be the conservative on this panel; I’m not that conservative. I’m probably more of a right-leaning moderate. I also didn’t vote for Trump, as I have concerns about his judgment and temperament. Instead, I voted for Gary Johnson. But this is Puget Sound, and so here I am representing the conservative perspective.

"Right now I feel a lot of things. I feel fear and worry. As I said, I’m concerned about Trump’s judgment. I’m also concerned because of the anger and division that I see, as well as the bad behavior by some of Trump’s supporters.

"As I watched the election returns roll in last night, though, I was surprised to discover that I also felt kind of excited, maybe even elated. And so why is that?

"I grew up in a small town in north Louisiana in the 1980s: a world that is Southern, rural, conservative and Christian. I’m second-generation college: my grandparents worked at jobs like coal miner, gas station attendant, department-store clerk, farmer, beautician. For most of my adult life I’ve been an academic, though, and for the past 11 years, I’ve worked at a very progressive liberal arts college in one of the most progressive parts of the country. That has given me a sort of double vision or cultural whiplash at times.

"Hillary Clinton called my people 'deplorable.' She said we were 'irredeemable.' Our current president, who I think sees the world similarly, said that my people are bitter clingers who hold on to guns and religion because we don’t have anything else worthwhile in our lives. Why would I want to support someone like that? Someone who talks that way about my people is not going to do a good job representing me. I’m glad she lost. I’ve got some concerns about Trump, but I’m glad Hillary Clinton lost.

"To understand this election, you have to understand that to be white working class means that you have almost no power. Not economic. Not cultural. Neither do you have the power that comes from moral authority, unlike most other victimized groups.

"To a large degree, Trump represents the revolt of the white working class. The revolt is partly economic. The cultural aspect is that they’re tired of being, in their minds, looked down on and condescended to by the people who run the country.

"I’ll hypothesize that, in some respects, the more Trump is mocked for his hair, his language, his racism, his sexism, his bigotry, the more the white working class says, 'That’s how I’ve been treated, too. Trump is like me. Trump is one of us.'"

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my campus after saying this, in an emotionally charged room with hundreds of people. But it represented the culmination of something that had been building in me for years.

Shut Out of Group Norms

I became an academic because I wanted to teach, help my students work through the big questions of life and discuss those big questions inside a larger community. I wanted a career at a liberal arts college. On the political axis, I thought of myself as a moderate. I knew academe leaned to the left, but I had always thought of the left (and academics in particular) as being fairly open-minded.

Not too long after I took my first tenure-track position in the fall of 2004, I was invited to a party by one of my colleagues. I had assumed it was just a friendly get-together. Most of the evening, however, was spent bashing President Bush. The critiques were more visceral than intellectual, and I saw none of the nuance that I expected from academics. In hindsight, I realize that much of what the guests were doing was signaling to each other their membership in a community, as well as venting frustrations, and they had assumed the party was a space where they could do that.

For unrelated reasons, I took a position at my current university -- a very different institution, in a very different part of the country -- the following year. Here, I have repeatedly found myself in situations where someone makes assumptions about everyone in the room, assumptions that I don’t share. The culprit has always been my Southernness, or my small-town background, or my Christian faith, or my lack of progressivism.

I remember the awkward silence that briefly followed when one of my students asked me outside of class whether I am religious, and I told him I am a Christian. I remember the snide comment about Texas at a faculty workshop. I remember a colleague’s casual dismissal of Fox News and the people who watch it. My mother watches Fox News. She’s one of most giving and selfless people I know -- someone who dropped everything to do disaster relief work in south Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

I remember others’ stories, too. I remember the two conservative students who vented in my office for half an hour, thankful that somebody was willing to listen to them. I remember the conservative colleague who told me that he’s tired of being a target and so he just keeps his head down now. I remember the alumnus who told me that he would never have dared to be out as a Christian on our campus because then he wouldn’t have had any friends.

Every institution has a culture and a set of shared norms, and an academic institution is no different. Those sacred values don’t come from the institution’s mission statement but arise from the shared set of beliefs held by the people who are part of it. A newcomer to a college may not ever be able to articulate that college’s norms, but he internalizes them every time an idea is praised with no countervailing opinion expressed. She internalizes them every time a group is criticized, and no one comes to that group’s defense. Over time the in ideas and out groups become part of the assumptions that people make. You don’t even think about them anymore. They’re like the oxygen in the air.

Where does that place you when you don’t share many of those norms? Sometimes you find yourself bewildered. On the literal level, the discussion is about Donald Trump or Barack Obama or George W. Bush or racism or transgender rights or environmental policy. But really the conversation is often about sacred values. When you don’t share the group norms, you feel shut out of the conversation because its very framing assumes the group norms. People don’t listen to the stories you use to explain your views because your stories are tied up with your norms -- not theirs -- and they don’t have a good mental place to connect them to. As a result, your stories get explained away.

You can always try to go deeper, of course. However, trying to get the group to look hard at its assumptions and then trying to explain why you don’t share them is difficult and exhausting. And even when you do have the energy, it’s easy to transgress some norm that you didn’t see and then face an unexpected blast directed at you. That makes you want to engage even less.

Besides, there are much easier options. You can become cynical. You can become angry. You can start hating the group. You can nurture your pain and envision yourself as a beleaguered minority. You can start throwing rhetorical explosives, which sure feels good -- at first. You can find another group. I’ve been tempted by most of these possible actions and have committed several of them.

The story that I’m telling here is about me at a progressive liberal arts college and slowly identifying more over time as conservative. It could also be the story of the white working class at the national level. And that brings me back to Trump and the post election panel.

Hopeful Signs

After I finished my remarks, I was worn out. I had just made myself far more emotionally vulnerable than I am used to, and I had done it in front of an angry and fearful crowd. I don’t remember much of the question-and-answer session, but I don’t think I had the wherewithal to attempt to answer anyone’s questions.

After it was over, one of my faculty colleagues made her way up to the table. “Thank you,” she said, “Your remarks made this all worthwhile.” The next person in line was a student. “My father is really conservative. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, and I’m scared about Thanksgiving. Do you have any advice for me?” She started tearing up. I hope what I said was helpful. Another student: “I’m a moderate. Thank you for giving another perspective.” “Just … thank you,” from a student in one of my classes this term. Then more expressions of thanks from faculty colleagues: “We should talk more,” “That’s exactly what we needed” and even “Nice pedagogy.”

Then, that night, I started getting emails. They continued to trickle in over the next several days. They said things like “That gave me a sense of courage,” “I realized I haven’t been listening well or asking the right questions,” “While you and I don’t agree, it was important for me to hear that” and “Thank you for pointing out that we are not all evil.” All in all, somewhere around 25 or 30 people have made a point of expressing gratitude for my remarks. The feedback hasn’t been uniformly positive -- I’ve also received some pushback -- but even that has been collegial.

I’ve responded in multiple ways. Scenes from Jerry Maguire keep running through my head: the ones where Jerry criticizes his company, everyone applauds and then Jerry gets fired. At least I have tenure, while Jerry did not. Another is a feeling of regret -- regret that I’ve underestimated my own campus.

Mostly, though, I’m more hopeful now than I have been in quite some time about my university. I hope we can dial back the inflammatory rhetoric -- especially the “-ists” and the “phobics” that we slap as labels on people. I hope we can do a better job of listening to people who have different values -- especially to a large group of people in this country who are not well understood by academics but whose support just elected Donald Trump president.

To understand the disparate people in our country, however, we need a greater variety of perspectives than we have now on campuses. Our sacred values shouldn’t effectively exclude large swaths of the country. We shouldn’t have to tap a moderately conservative mathematician who didn’t vote for Trump to give the conservative view on Trump voters.

Academe shouldn’t even be an institution that needs hastily convened panels like the one I was on: we should know how large groups of people in this country think and feel. We should be teaching their experiences and listening to them. We should have more people with their belief systems on our campuses, teaching and learning, so we can learn from them.

And so I find myself, ironically, arguing in favor of one of academe’s most sacred values: diversity. I’m not arguing for diversity the way academe functionally defines it, though. Instead, I’m arguing for intellectual diversity. Trump’s election -- and academe’s response -- only confirm that, for an institution of higher learning, it's the most important kind of diversity to have.


Mike Spivey is professor of mathematics at the University of Puget Sound.


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