Controversy is good

It’s no secret that Swarthmore is a predominantly liberal institution. Last semester, Alec Ferry ’21 conducted an ethnography about the political identities of Swarthmore students and found that indeed, Swat students generally tend toward liberalism over conservatism. Not surprisingly, Swat isn’t the only college that is this way. Most colleges in the U.S. are liberal-leaning, according to various research. I can attest to this phenomenon too, as most of the people I have come to know at Swat are liberal. By “liberal” and “conservative,” I am simply talking about ideologies and values. Liberals and conservatives differ in values for various political, economic, and social issues. For example, liberals tend to value government regulation, whereas conservatives tend to value limited government, and it is because liberals and conservatives differ in this way that they often have opposing opinions on issues like minimum wage and long term state-funded social welfare programs.
As a conservative myself, I personally don’t mind Swat’s political sphere all that much. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that I’m surrounded by people who, for the most part, disagree with me politically. In fact, I think of it as a good thing. I have had meaningful, challenging discussions about controversial topics like abortion and economic policy with my friends and in classes, which ended not only in me strengthening my value system but also, more importantly, understanding the values of others and their reasons for holding such values. That has helped me relate to a more diverse group of people with whom, prior coming to Swat, I might not have even conversed. One of my best friends at Swat, for example, is very liberal, and he disagrees with me nearly every time we have talk about a political issue from abortion to gun control — but I have learned to appreciate why he believes what he believes while still being true to my own beliefs. This is the reason why I value controversy so much and sometimes even seek it. Controversy allows an opportunity for people to understand and make meaningful, personal relationships with the “other side” which, in an era of polarized politics, religious and non-religious violence, and international conflict, is and will be a thousand times more important than I can even say in words.
Yet, I’ve noticed that listening to opposing viewpoints doesn’t really happen outside an academic atmosphere, especially if a conservative student expresses their beliefs to a liberal student. In Ferry’s ethnography, two of the three conservative interviewees described negative experiences with political conversations not for any other reason than because they held conservative ideologies.
According to Ferry, this is also something that researcher Amy J. Binder noted, “that at each University conservative students felt as if hiding, or protecting, their actual political identity would yield more positive interactions with professors and classmates.” I certainly did this in my “Religion and the Meaning of Life” first year seminar last semester. When the topic of capitalism came up, some of my classmates argued for a less competitive market system with much government control — border-lined socialism, really — I disagreed with them, but I bit my tongue and restrained myself from speaking in fear of being disliked. The Swarthmore Conservative Society, too, recognizes that political controversy may not be very welcome at Swat. Once in an SCS meeting, someone said something I can’t quite remember, but I do remember everyone in the room immediately joking about how he shouldn’t say what he said so openly and without the door closed unless he wanted someone to come in and verbally attack him. Even my same liberal friend suspects that if there is controversy between conservatives and liberals on campus, it doesn’t end well.
“Swat is too liberal,” he said.  “People can’t say what they want because of the shit they’re going to get.”
Probably the most controversial issue I’ve seen on campus so far is with Swarthmore Christian Fellowship after Eduard Saakashvili’s article “Swarthmore Christian Fellowship has a Sexuality Problem” was published last semester. The article, which exposed SCF’s anti-homosexual bias, sparked much discussion online, in my religions class, and I’m sure in many more venues. I personally don’t agree with SCF’s policy, but I can’t express any detestation towards them because I understand where SCF is coming from. I myself grew up in a conservative household and in a conservative church, so I understand the values that SCF holds and why SCF holds them. I can imagine myself in another reality as an SCF leader holding such views, even though in actuality I may disagree. That is why I feel that if one were to truly understand someone else — where they came from, how they were raised, what environment they grew up in, and anything else that could have factored into their being — all feelings of hostility and hate would go away. That’s why I really can’t hate on SCF, since I can empathize with them despite disagreeing.  It was my observation, however, that many people didn’t use the controversial issue to understand SCF because they instead bashed and attacked the organization and its members. In my religion class, everybody expressed disgust not only towards the actual organization but even towards fellow Swatties who are active in SCF. I don’t think any of these negative responses are productive or indicative of understanding. And it’s very, very important that we try to understand even those with whom we disagree. Choosing not to understand the other side will always foster some kind of intolerance or internal pain. In this case, those in SFC who refuse to understand those who identify as both Christian and queer and will only lead to increased homophobia, and those who identify as both Christian and queer who refuse to understand SCF could miss an opportunity to relieve any internal conflict they might have, which I hope everyone can agree are problems that ought to be fixed.
I admit, perhaps we’re lucky here at Swat because someone can choose to not understand SFC’s values and simply start their own club — in fact, that’s exactly what some people did. But some people don’t have the choice of simply starting over. In countries where homosexuality is illegal, fair policy changes will really only happen if both the government and non-homophobic people listen, understand, and empathize with each other. In some cases, this understanding literally could be the difference between life and death. Having empathy for those in opposition, by the way, in my opinion the best way to solve any problem or misunderstanding of any size scale, by. One of my favorite historical figures and one of the best examples of empathy is Mahatma Gandhi who, despite being a devout Hindu, refused to stand by Hindu nationalists in fighting against Muslims. He said, “I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew — and so are all of you.” To acquire this much understanding and empathy between such a diverse group of people is indeed inspiring, but I don’t think someone has to go through the extreme oppression and religious violence that Gandhi went through to imitate it. We could have many opportunities for controversy on this campus if we tried for anyone to learn how to understand each other, and I think it’s time all of us do just that.
There will always be differences in opinion — that will never change. So we might as well make the most of that diversity and try to understand it, instead of blindly pushing it away as if it were harmful to our own ideologies, as if attacking it and being mean would somehow solve anything. Diversity only truly matters if we understand and appreciate our differences. Otherwise, the diversity and inclusion Swat boasts from the first day of freshman orientation week to the ongoing diversity trainings might be tragically wasted. I’m not saying everyone must agree on everything; two people don’t have to agree to understand each other. In fact, it has been my experience that when I disagree with someone I understand them the most because controversy always presents a clear opportunity to learn from others. Controversy is daunting and can be intimidating, but it can be good if approached with conscious conversation with a sincere intention to learn. For that to happen in the political sphere here at Swat, conservatives — starting with myself — must not be afraid to speak up, and liberals must not close off their ears to listen.

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