The Oberlin Review

Students Must Reject Elitism to Engage Conservatives

Tom Cohn, Contributing Writer

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In the wake of the election there have been a chilling number of reports of white supremacist and misogynistic intimidation, harassment and even physical violence by emboldened Trump supporters. Oberlin students, via the Gibson’s boycott and protest, have come into direct contact with people on the other side of the political spectrum who seem similarly emboldened. Take, for example, the creepy and abusive “Gibson’s Bakery Support Page” on Facebook, which was created in opposition to the protest and actively attempted to identify participating students. Gibson’s online supporters also echoed Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric when they referred to the student boycott as “libel and defamation” and encouraged “Second Amendment” people to show up as counter-protesters bearing firearms.

We are not yet prepared for the necessary task of effective communication with such people. At times we find ourselves unprepared to address their specific objections. For example, I’ve witnessed students abruptly opting to disengage from conversation or calling on each other to do the same, which may be convenient in the short-term but ultimately reflects our difficulty in articulating a cogent response to the opposition.

When protesting police brutality and explaining the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, we have to expect conservatives to retort with “all lives matter” or even accusations that BLM promotes so-called ‘reverse racism’ and terrorism. The content and delivery of our reply to these arguments have enormous bearing on our ability to discuss injustice and successfully disabuse people of harmful myths circulating in contemporary political discourse. We must now confront these narratives and develop effective responses, which means being empirically oriented. If we aren’t familiar with basic facts on racism, climate change, poverty in the U.S. and many more issues, then we risk the hypocrisy of being as anti-intellectual as we accuse our opponents of being.

Equally important is to reject any trace of elitist sentiment among ourselves, recognize we’re not superior to our conservative opponents and approach them with some humility. As Oberlin students, we have an opportunity to provide alternative answers that address the legitimate grievances of Trump supporters in a way the mainstream political left has failed to do. For example, we are in the position to explain that neoliberal restructuring, not illegal immigration, is responsible for low wages and unemployment. Instead of insulting people on the other side of the political spectrum, even though much of what they have been led to believe insults our morals, we must strive to identify shared values and convey as much compassion as we are capable of.

Such an approach has precedent. The Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100 Study asks whether survey respondents “harbor anti-Semitic attitudes” but not whether they are anti-Semites. This distinction was emphasized by Anita Gray of the Cleveland ADL during “Social (In)justice and Anti-Semitism: A Community Conversation,” a panel discussion at Oberlin last May. Likewise, many Trump supporters clearly hold racist attitudes, and their bigotry may well be so deeply ingrained that they will never let go of it. Does this make a person a bigot or a racist? Perhaps. But as a practical matter, will saying or implying that they are reduce their prejudice? Or will it merely put them on the defensive and thus reduce their receptivity and openness?

We can also learn from the example set by journalist Michele Norris via “The Race Card Project,” which she spoke about at Oberlin this September. Norris found she could facilitate constructive dialogue by inviting people to be candid about their point of view — in this case, their thoughts and experiences regarding race relations in the U.S. In other words, when people felt comfortable enough to open themselves up to vulnerability, they were then more open to being challenged.

However, we must be aware of the role of structural oppression, power and privilege in the varying amounts of emotional labor performed by protesters as well as the relative receptivity of our audience. Allies ought to look to people of marginalized groups for when to take and give space in delivering messages to people with differing views, and respectfully but adamantly guide members of the opposition to recognize and overcome the social conditioning that prevents them from first listening to women, LGBTQ people or people of color.

Strategic communication and scholarly rigor are not mutually exclusive with speaking truth to power, but rather are prerequisites for effectively reaching other people. The task before us is to identify the empirical basis for progressive policy alternatives and convey them to people who are not only of a different ideological persuasion, but who also, lest we forget, wield a terrifying degree of power.

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5 Responses to “Students Must Reject Elitism to Engage Conservatives”

  1. HiHo on November 20th, 2016 11:15 AM

    “Equally important is to reject any trace of elitist sentiment among ourselves, recognize we’re not superior to our conservative opponents and approach them with some humility. ”

    I’m glad you say that, but the entire column assumes that its you who are going to teach the unwashed Trump supporters all your terribly important insights about racism etc. Try intellectual humility first. It isn’t simply a tool to get what you want……

  2. Tom Cohn on November 21st, 2016 6:37 AM

    Thank you for your comment!
    I am all for intellectual humility if it means admitting to not have all the answers – after all, if we already did, there’d be no need to call for our doing the work of empirical verification of progressive policies in order to be prepared for engaging in fact-based discussion. Our Oberlin education offers us tremendous resources for contributing in the best way we can to current political discourse, but I’d hope it goes without saying that we can still learn from conservatives. In fact, it would be not only elitist but hypocritical for us to expect openness and receptivity from others but fail to reciprocate.

    Honest conversations about politics can also be a source of hope and encouragement about the future, especially as people begin to discover common values, interests, and concerns. For instance, I remember having a civilized and constructive discussion with a Republican voter from Iowa when I was phone banking for the Bernie Sanders campaign last January, and toward the end of our conversation we both agreed that the country would be a better place if more people from opposite ends of the political spectrum engaged in respectful debate about politics.

    Also, fellow Oberlin student Maureen Coffey recently wrote in an article published in the Review ten days ago (11/11/16):
    “As I reflect, I keep coming back to the words of First Lady Michelle Obama as she addressed Oberlin’s Class of 2015: ‘I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens — the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.’ We have an opportunity before us. We must engage with our fellow Americans, and we must bridge the gaps…”

    And I suspect that The Weekly Standard ran a story about President Obama’s exhortation to young people that they embrace “lively, open debate” in part because the magazine agreed with and perhaps appreciated his comments. (

    However, I have to be clear that I don’t consider intellectual humility to include silence in the face of bigotry and racism. To the extent that Donald Trump as president upholds white supremacy and xenophobia, we will not hesitate before vigorous protest and resistance. But this is no barrier to forging connections with Trump supporters. In fact, looking at exit polls, a lot of people who voted for Trump did so reluctantly or otherwise had serious reservations, on the basis of his temperament and/or relative qualifications for the presidency. And progressive Democrats recognize this reaction as a rejection of the establishment politics that has failed the electorate. This is why I, my colleagues, and many on the political left seek to focus attention on the legitimate grievances (which we will only be able to fully understand by truly listening – hence the value of rational and respectful discourse) of Trump voters.

    But we also believe that, for example, taking measures to end racial discrimination, poverty and income inequality is a better alternative to blaming immigrants for social problems and pursuing the same neoliberal trickle-down economics that have contributed to deindustrialization and the decades-long decline of the middle class.

    If these indeed happen to be “terribly important insights,” they don’t belong to us, and we certainly have no reason to be self-congratulatory about what we believe to be true about the world. We also recognize the obligation to support our assertions with evidence, and to be able to convey what we understand our findings to be.

    I sincerely don’t mean to talk down to anyone, especially as I along with my peers am still learning about this country and the world. I wrote this article to spur on the search for truth. We’d be glad to get your perspective. Thanks again for taking the time.


  3. HiHo. on November 23rd, 2016 4:49 PM

    I note that there is considerable room for debate as to what constitutes a meaningful definition of “white supremacy” and even “racism”. No one is asking anyone to agree with something they think is evil, but as far as I can see these terms are extraordinarily loaded, and currently there is no uniform consensuus on what these terms mean, either in operational terms, or in terms of what aspects of “white suprenmacy” are politically important in any given political/policy arena. The lack of consensus doesn’t mean that you are right or wrong, it means that what YOU call legitimate will differ from what your interlocutors call “legitimate”.

    To me a political idea should be judged by their empirical demonstrable consequence when applied to real life situations. So (for instance, and depending on who you read) neoliberalism seems to have lead to a huge surge in global wealth and health, but also to many significant local political disenfranchisements and social stratifications. Both of those are “legitimate concerns”. Should you really congratulate yourself unequivocally condemning something in a blanket fashion when you know that reality is complicated, and hard unequivocal data on consequences exceedingly difficult to come by? Where is the hard evidence that specific measures you are proposing will work in any given situation? Not saying you don’t have it, but randomized controlled trials on political initiatives are pretty rare as far as I can see. Just sayin’.

    I think engaging is an excellent idea, but the principle problem I have with progressive political activism (and I’m not even a conservative) is that it mostly consists of people throwing around slogans, morally posing and congratulating themselves (like…errr….you just did) even while they say “We need dialogue!”. It isn’t dialogue if all you are out to do is convince other people. Its just proselytization. Ho hum.

  4. Tom Cohn on November 29th, 2016 12:46 PM

    Thanks again for taking the time to reply!

    Please tell me how I congratulated myself — I don’t mean this as a challenge but because if it’s something I am doing unconsciously (and maybe also displaying elitism without knowing it) then I want to be aware of it so I can change it.

    We seem to be in agreement for the need to move beyond slogans and get into specifics! And based on what you said in your comment this is in fact a dialogue, or at least the beginning of it.

    The points you raised push me (and my peers!) to continue seeking the empirical basis for answers. So for example I already several books in mind that seek to address issues such as racism or the economy in-depth and with scholarly rigor. I wrote this article to encourage my peers to try and start these kinds of discussions and then undertake essentially research projects to learn more about these issues.

    For me and most other students, though, it will have to wait until after finals because the next 2 weeks are the busiest of the semester. But just to be clear, I think we can still advance an argument based on our research findings without having such a preconceived agenda that we stop listening and deliver monologues instead of taking part in a dialogue.

    Many thanks,
    P.S., please do feel free to email me at if you’d like.

  5. HiHo. on December 2nd, 2016 11:54 AM

    Every time you assert the moral necessity of your ideas, you are congratulating yourself. “I will hold to these ideas because they are morally right.” The reaction to that is (psychologically) inevitable: “Goody for you to be so righteous. I don’t think morality translates into political ideas the way you do.”

    If you want dialogue, you have to assume that somehow your opponent feels morally justified too and figure out, by empathy and experience, what that moral justification is. One does not have to buy their justification, but one has to respect it by not claiming that you are morally right: that just shuts everything down. The bedrock of common ground for discourse is empirical reality, not morality. Good luck on your exams.

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