With the 2020 Presidential Election steadily approaching, it’s more important than ever for students to become politically engaged. Learning about the candidates running and their policies is crucial to making an informed decision on who to support. Last semester, Lesley’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) hosted several Democratic Debate Watch Parties in Marran Theatre for students to come together and engage in political discussions. It was an excellent opportunity for students to educate themselves.
But what if it’s difficult to engage in political discourse because you’re afraid of your opinion being mocked or used against you? As the political landscape beyond our campus grows increasingly negative, so does the smaller one on our own campus. USG has made the decision to stop hosting these Democratic Debate Watch Parties in response to what became an increasingly divisive, toxic climate at Lesley.
I spoke to Molly Quilitzsch, a freshman member of USG who was the driving force behind these Watch Parties, both planning and facilitating them. When Quilitzsch began hosting these events, she understood that people would come into them with different political alignments. What she didn’t anticipate, however, was that students would be outwardly belligerent towards one another over differing opinions. She mentions that, since endeavoring to take on these events with USG, “the campus political climate has become very hostile.” She cites the main reason for her desire to stop holding the watch parties as “comments made… by students at this university,” specifically ones of a derogatory nature towards others holding opposing viewpoints.
Expecting everyone on campus to share the same set of political beliefs is unreasonable. Although Cambridge is a generally liberal area, not everyone on campus is coming from a similar background. Students arrive at Lesley with different religious views, political opinions, cultural beliefs, and thoughts of their own. Of course, we do not have to agree with each other; but we do owe respect to members of our on-campus community. Unfortunately, that was not what occurred during the Watch Parties.
One of a student’s greatest assets, especially during a time of near-constant political and social turmoil, is their constitutional right to free speech. It’s a way to make yourself heard, to share your beliefs and defend causes that are of personal importance. On paper, nothing is stopping a student from saying exactly what is on their mind. However, if the campus atmosphere is so unwelcoming of any difference in opinion, then students may feel as though exercising that right isn’t worth the potential for confrontation. That shuts down a crucial avenue for self-expression, as well as an opportunity to learn from others. Quilitzsch echoed this as she described her desire to step away from the Democratic Debate Watch Parties she implemented on campus, feeling that the space she created was no longer worth the fight.
Speaking to Quilitzsch, I couldn’t help but wonder if other students felt the same way she did. Is the Democratic Debate Watch Party issue just a microcosm of a larger issue at the university-level: placing an immense amount of pressure on any viewpoints that we don’t personally believe in until they are silenced? Some students think so.
As I talked to folks on campus, all of them expressed the same amount of frustration and discomfort around Lesley’s political scene. When asked about the climate at Lesley, one student offered that being liberal on a “very liberal-leaning campus” made them feel more comfortable speaking up, since that’s how they “align politically.” However, when I asked how they would feel if they identified otherwise, they acknowledged that they could see “how more conservative members of society would feel uncomfortable speaking up at Lesley.” They went on to add that that kind of shunning is “damaging,” since all students should be “expressing [their] thoughts and working towards a common good.”
Another student concluded that “Lesley is a bubble,” meaning that the university immerses students in very specific, very narrow viewpoints with no deviation from the norm seen as acceptable. But we don’t learn anything new by shutting ourselves in our own secure, political bubbles. We learn more when we open our eyes to new viewpoints- about our peers, about parts of the world we have not yet experienced, about how to have a respectful disagreement. We learn more about our own viewpoints that way, too; namely, why they make us so emotional and why they drive us to take action.
A second-year student added that Lesley prides itself on its “open-mindedness,” but does not find that “notion to be supported.” As a person who admittedly “grew up very politically unaware,” this student occasionally fears “speaking up in classes, as [they] do not want to say something out of ignorance that… could be misconstrued.” They went on to add that “…obviously we are here to learn and to remove some ignorance from the equation, but I can think of multiple instances where someone has spoken their mind out of ignorance and has been cast a bad person for it. Students claim to be open-minded but seem to hold grudges rather than allowing the university to be the place of learning that it should be.”
Quilitzsch put it best when she said, “Disagreements are natural and perfectly okay, but personal attacks and name-calling are uncalled for and frankly, unproductive.” As students, we can look away and choose not to respond to opinions that we don’t agree with, but we can’t shut them down entirely. We also can’t take our inner frustrations out on someone who is simply exercising their right to support a political candidate.
Going forward, what can be done? At some point in time, if USG decides to resurrect the Debate Watch Parties, I would argue that they’d be less toxic with some ground rules in place. Commenting on the views of others should be discouraged; all discussion should be directed at the candidates on screen, rather than the students in the room. Having a Political Science professor or a knowledgeable faculty member on hand to mediate the conversation would also be helpful until it is known that hostility will not be tolerated.
Another option would be a larger, university-wide solution: implementing more opportunities for honest discourse and disagreement within classes. It’s a skill we’ll all need for life beyond Lesley. If more professors implemented good-natured political debates in class, they could help to guide students to react without anger or insults. It would establish certain guidelines around students’ interactions with others here at Lesley. We’re in a professional environment and we’re dealing with real people: people who are entitled to think what they think. We do not have the right to silence others, even if we don’t want to hear what they have to say.
The world, and our campus, are becoming more politically-polarizing. We’re quick to accuse each other and make rash judgements. Stigmatizing any individual for their political views is dangerous and misguided. It places unfair preconceived notions on someone before we’ve even learned about who they are and what they stand for. It also discourages students, who are of crucial voting age, from getting involved in politics out of fear of confrontation.
If you’d like to see the Watch Parties come back, let us know; you can send us a comment. We’d like to hear from you about this.