An Unhealthy Bubble

We in higher education need to provide a diverse and inclusive environment that challenges people to stop surrounding themselves only with others whose views match their own, writes David P. Haney.

December 20, 2016
 
 
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In the immediate aftermath of a highly charged 2016 presidential election, a number of college and university presidents issued public statements expressing their concerns over the unexpected result and vowing to protect students from a national resurgence of racism, sexism, xenophobia and misogyny that they believe to be implicit in Donald Trump’s victory.

Rather than helping to reduce tensions and assuage fears, these expressions of alarm, concern and support may have done more to create campus unrest than forestall it by reinforcing the notion that the academic community must erect barricades to protect its members -- instead of exploring what happened in the election and why.

In my dealings as a university president with donors, alumni, legislators, staff members, faculty members and students, I hear views that are every class of right, left and center. To most of those with whom I speak (and to most people in general), their views appear to them to be self-evident truth.

This normal human tendency is exacerbated by what pioneering online organizer Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble,” in which the modern proliferation of news media allows us -- and, in fact, encourages us -- to surround ourselves only with views that match our own. That phenomenon is a problem not only intellectually and politically but also ethically.

To think within such bubbles is to put the person who is outside one’s bubble into a limiting category in which we believe we understand everything we need to know about that person. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught, this subjection of the other person to one’s own categories is precisely the definition of violence. Levinas, most of whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, goes so far as to find in this limited categorization of “the other” an important source of the Nazis’ violence against Jews.

Presidential elections regularly practice this kind of violent categorization (think “lying Hillary” and “racist Trump”), though it was more extreme than usual in this one. Such hyperbolic characterizations of another’s position are themselves examples of the violence implicit in racism and the imposition of untruth. In that sense, violence knows no party, and neither violence nor its cure can be laid at the feet of the democratic process, since any person’s vote can be a gesture of violence or peace. I would go so far as to suggest that our either/or two-party system of national elections, in addition to our post-Enlightenment prioritization of the individual over the group, tends to promote -- or, at least, in no way combat -- the violence of categorization and exclusion of the other.

How do we get out of this violent cycle? As an alumnus said to me recently, those who are upset by the election results need to ask themselves, “Why did my views lose?” Donald Trump’s victory was not a coup but a free election in a democracy. That cannot be labeled populism gone awry, because he will very likely be chosen by the very system, the Electoral College, that was established in part to counter unbridled populism, and it is now pretty clear that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Barring any major surprises (which virtually no one anticipates) in the various recounts now occurring, he is our president-elect, because we elected him. There is no “they” to blame here -- not even Russia.

The hacking of internal Democratic National Committee and other emails during the campaign, for which the CIA blames Russia, is a serious national security concern. However, to equate it to a foreign manipulation of the election is an illogical inference, even if that was their intent, and as much as it might fit into the bubble of a Cold War narrative. Russian operatives didn’t stuff ballot boxes, coerce voters or even spread fake news. If the CIA is correct, they simply released presumably authentic emails that DNC staff did not want released. (Of all people, given Clinton’s own email woes, those staffers should have known better than to write self-incriminating emails.)

The hacking itself may be evil, but that doesn’t translate into an evil effect on the election. If people’s votes were changed, they were freely changed on the basis of new information. Our own government’s reopening of the Clinton email case probably did as much to dissuade people from voting for Clinton as any action by a foreign power.

Apocalyptic hand-wringing, especially by those of us in the business of educating the electorate, is really not helpful. (Plenty of college-educated people voted for Trump, so it’s disingenuous to pin his victory on the poorly educated.) Even President Obama, whose personal and political legacy has more to lose than most in this election, said, as noted in David Remnick’s recent New Yorker piece, “This is not the apocalypse.”

The way forward is to find common ground, oppose violence and work toward the good -- as even Senator Bernie Sanders is doing in engaging Trump on a shared concern for the plight of the working class. Trump also has a distinctive opportunity, despite his own campaign rhetoric, to separate conservatism from bigotry by disavowing the openly racist “alt-right” groups that have stepped out of the shadows (where they were arguably more dangerous) since the election.

As institutions of higher education, we need to provide a diverse and inclusive environment that challenges students both to get out of their filter bubbles and to recognize the violence implicit in living inside a bubble. That requires us to protect them when necessary, including from the violence of others who would define them by race, gender, political beliefs or national origin.

But we also need to prepare them to live and work in a messy democracy in which, following Levinas, peace is achieved not through the voter’s assertion of the priority of individual choice, but rather by acknowledging the infinity of the other person -- someone who has an existence we should respect beyond the categories we are tempted to impose. I hope that can be an important part of our focus as citizens and educators going forward.

Bio

David P. Haney is president of Centenary University.

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