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A Teachable Conflict: Reckoning With Polarization On American Campuses and What Can Be Done About It

A Teachable Conflict: Reckoning With Polarization On American Campuses and What Can Be Done About It

  • This is the time for the sane moderates to be bold, to write and discuss more, and not be timid in the face of lies and propaganda.

Some years are so noisy that you can‚Äôt even hear yourself think clearly. This year the events arrived tripping over one other at breakneck speed, our reactions to them predictably, tangled, and chaotic. Near the finish line ‘authentic’ was declared the word of the year by Merriam-Webster as the world grappled to separate real from fake with the rapid progress in Artificial Intelligence. This year saw an upsurge in armed conflict as Ukraine continued to fight off the Russian invasion and a fresh outbreak of violence in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas militants.¬†

But it’s the later conflict — the Israel-Hamas war that boiled over onto the universities in the U.S. and for the first time, the country saw the campuses struggling to navigate competing campus protests, finding it hard to turn them into any sort of constructive dialogue. 

The universities‚ÄĒbig and small‚ÄĒhave oscillated between taking too hard a stance and not being forceful enough to stamp out the commotion. While this has brought in a fresh interest among students in trying to understand the history of the region and why the conflict has got to the point it has, it has also ushered in a moment when the very relevance of universities is being called into question as social media and other outside actors like funders and rich patrons hijacked the narration polarizing the entire discourse.  

As the University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill resigned after receiving criticism for her testimony at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism where she struggled to answer a question I was carried back to a time when I joined the graduate program at the same university 20 years ago. I remember attending an international relations class with students from nine different countries most of whom spoke in heavily accented English that they carried from their home countries. We had many a heated argument on world events but never did it result in making us so polarized that we were unable to listen to the other side. It is the sanctity of a university that enables teachers and students to bring together a diverse set of perspectives and makes difficult discussions possible.

Now that the campuses are seeing a growth of competing protests some universities like Brandeis University took strict steps in clamping down on what they have decided is the unpopular perspective (by banning Students for Justice in Palestine on campus) while others like Dartmouth College took a novel route by holding discussions with professors and students on campus.

So, how did the campuses turn this intolerant? One of the reasons that apathy might have crept into the schools is because of the politics around sensitive topics in the Middle East. Amaney Jamal, Professor of Politics at Princeton University recently discussed in a campus conversation series that no one wants to teach a course on Arab-Israel conflict in universities because of the ‚Äúpressure from the administrators and the outside groups that have infiltrated universities to sanction and outlaw certain forms of speech.‚ÄĚ 

Now that the campuses are seeing a growth of competing protests some universities like Brandeis University took strict steps in clamping down on what they have decided is the unpopular perspective (by banning Students for Justice in Palestine on campus) while others like Dartmouth College took a novel route of easing tensions sparked by the Israel-Hamas war by holding discussions with professors and students on campus. In the future, protests like this are bound to grow given how polarized campuses have become and so there is a need for more discussions, not less. Only that can drive away the apathy and separate ‚Äúfree speech‚ÄĚ from ‚Äúhate speech.‚ÄĚ This separation is crucial for the campuses have come of age. It‚Äôs a learning moment for both faculty and administrators on how to manage and facilitate this transition by allowing peaceful and open-minded discussion among students. 

And it’s a learning moment for all of us as well. The only way polarization can be defeated and the ‘authentic’ dugout is if the restrained, moderate majority crowded around the bell curve end their silence and speak up. The extreme voices that have taken center stage and dished out reductionist narratives to help maintain their monopoly on power need to be exposed. Social media is a tool that can be used by anyone. It‚Äôs time that the considerate, sensible majority starts using it in their favor. 

See Also

Next year around 70 elections are to be held in countries home to more than half of the global population (4.2 billion people). Whether or not those elections will be fair or free depends on several factors, one major one being the sensible moderate majority making the right decision while choosing their leaders. This is the time for the sane moderates to be bold, to write and discuss more, and not be timid in the face of lies and propaganda.

(Top photo, Students protest on DePaul University’s campus in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. The event, organized by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), was part of a nationwide student protest calling for a ceasefire in the Middle East. Photo by Jacqueline Cardenas, Editor-in-Chief of La DePaulia, courtesy of depauliaonline.com)


Sreya Sarkar is a public policy analyst based out of Boston.

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