Students Must Reject Elitism to Engage Conservatives

Tom Cohn, Contributing Writer

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.