He Who Knows Only His Own Side Knows Little of That
Tendrils of smoke emerged from the center of the crowd and the smell of burning cloth wandered up my nostrils as I made my way through the swarm of students. The building echoed with the sound of sheer rage as some students wept while others chanted “Not my president!”. Pushing past several students, I stumbled into a small clearing in the center of the crowd. In the middle of this clearing, a girl cried silently, tears streaming down her cheeks, dripping onto the “I’m With Her” slogan printed across her shirt. In her left hand, she held an American flag; it was burning. As red and white stripes became engulfed in yellow flames, I watched in absolute awe. Her hand shook as it held the flaming banner of freedom. Her lips trembled. She seemed defiant yet oddly fragile, as if her rage was so intense it was exhausting, and her shuddering body might literally collapse under the burden of her own despair.
Meanwhile, a few yards away, another student screamed “He won! Accept it! This is how democracy works!”. His face was almost as red as the “Make America Great Again” hat that perched precariously on his head. Fists clenched, he stood his ground amidst the mob of dismayed Clinton-supporters—as he shouted, a thick, swollen vein bulged from his neck, pumping blood and anger from his pounding heart to his head. The flag-holding girl and the hat-wearing boy stared obstinately into each other’s tear-filled eyes. Never before had I seen such a visceral, unbridled display of fear and contempt. It was November 8th , 2016, in Washington D.C. and I had been walking towards the dining hall at American University. I was participating in the Washington Semester Program—a 15-week ‘study abroad’ experience that allows SCU’s Political Science majors to live, work, and take classes in our nation’s capital. After shuffling through the horde of protesters, I finally arrived at the breakfast counter. As I ate my breakfast, I wondered whether this emotionally-charged confrontation would eventually give way to reasoned dialogue. A quote by John Stuart Mill echoed throughout my head: “He who knows only his own side knows little of that.”
A few days after the election, I was riding the Metro to DuPont Circle, where I was meeting some friends for drinks. Sprinting down the escalator, I pushed past several people as the doors of the Metro car began to slide shut. A robotic female voice echoed from the station’s announcement system, calmly droning “Doors closing”, seeming to taunt me as I raced to catch the departing train. “Doors closing” she said again, with a mechanical, programmed indifference that seemed to mock my desperation. Due to repairs, trains were running at 20 min intervals; if I didn’t catch this one, I would be waiting on the platform for quite some time. I managed to squeeze between the sliding doors, collapsing into the nearest available seat as the train pulled away from the station. It was an older Metro car, with cracked polyester seats and filthy floors smothered with flattened pieces of chewed gum. Breathing heavily, I glanced around the Metro car. Normally, at this late hour, the cars were relatively empty. However, mine was packed with young people carrying signs, loudspeakers, and flags. They were all protesters.
Leaning across the aisle, I asked “where are you guys headed?”
“Trump International Hotel”, one responded. There was a defiant tone in her voice, almost as if she were challenging me to say something negative.
I merely responded, “Mind if I join you?”. A grin crept across her face.
“Sure”, she said, leaning back in her chair.
Instead of meeting my friends at DuPont Circle, I spent the night talking with protesters—marching with them, asking them questions, hearing their opinions. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of why they were protesting. Personally, I was quite displeased with the outcome of the election, but it never occurred to me to protest; I was curious as to what exactly they were protesting and what they hoped to achieve. Throughout my conversations, various protesters repeated one phrase over and over: “If you voted for Trump, you are racist or, at the very least, you are ok with racism; and if that’s the case, I don’t need to hear anything you have to say”. This struck me as rather odd. Racism cannot wholly explain why 30% of Hispanics voted for Trump; were these protesters really suggesting that nearly 1 in 3 Hispanics are prejudiced against their own race (or at least ok with prejudice against their own race)? Racism cannot wholly explain why 30% of Asians voted for Trump. Racism cannot wholly explain why 8% of African Americans voted for Trump, nor can sexism explain why 42% of women voted for Trump. Racism is not an explanation, it is an oversimplification. Most worryingly, these protesters seemed to have no interest in arriving at a more accurate, more comprehensive explanation of the pro-Trump phenomenon. They dismissed Trumpism as racism, and then refused to engage with Trumpists on the grounds that they were racist. The quote rattled around in my head: “He who knows only his own side knows little of that”.
A few days later, I was at a social gathering with a few of my friends. Thundering bass reverberated from the subwoofer in the next room, rattling the walls of the rickety old Woodley Park house. In the tiny living room, people were clustered into numerous little groups, chatting about school, the Metro repairs, and, of course, politics. I drifted between conversations, until I arrived at a small group near the fireplace—a small contingent of political science students, talking over the quiet crackle of the flickering flames.
“Liberal or conservative?”, one of them asked bluntly, as I joined their conversation.
“Depends on how you define ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’”, I responded, dodging the question. I was more curious to see how he conceptualized the different ideologies.
“Simple. Do you believe that we should tax people for being successful? Do you think we can make society safer by taking self-defense weapons away from law-abiding families? If criminals, by definition, don’t follow the law, how are gun control laws going to stop criminals from getting guns? Is racial discrimination ok as long as it benefits minorities?”, he exploded, his voice dripping with contempt. As he spoke, I realized his words sounded eerily similar to Bill O’Reilly’s usual rants.
“Can I ask you a question? How often do you talk with liberals?”, I asked calmly.
“As little as possible”, he replied firmly. The quote screamed through my head: “He who knows only his own side knows little of that”. The following weeks were filled with similar examples of partisan animosity and a general unwillingness to engage with the ‘other side’. By the time I returned to Santa Clara, I had resolved to become involved in facilitating inter-ideological dialogue. That is why I joined the Hackworth program.
Across our nation, civil discourse is being suffocated by partisan antipathy. In recent years, Democrats and Republicans have developed a strong mutual dislike for each other. According to a recent study by Pew Research, the percentage of Republicans who hold "very unfavorable" opinions of Democrats has more than doubled since 1994; similarly, the percentage of Democrats who hold "very unfavorable" opinions of Republicans has also doubled. Indeed, we have seen a sharp spike in partisan animosity, with both Republicans and Democrats growing increasingly resentful towards each other.
This antagonism and hostility stems from a mutual lack of dialogue. Research shows that Republicans and Democrats no longer engage in meaningful discourse with each other. According to the aforementioned Pew study, nearly two thirds of conservatives say their friends are predominantly conservative; similarly, roughly half of all liberals say their friends are predominantly liberal. In other words, we increasingly surround ourselves with people who share our ideologies. Democrats interact with fellow Democrats, while Republicans spend time with fellow Republicans. Hence, rather than exposing ourselves to alternative viewpoints and new ideas, we simply reinforce our own biases and become further entrenched in our own ideologies. Over time, we become so enveloped in our own political echo-chambers, we begin to regard the opposing ideology as some abhorrent, incomprehensible alien entity. In this manner, our nation becomes divided.
The stories conveyed in this blog post highlight anecdotal evidence of this. While those stories take place in Washington DC, Santa Clara University is not exempt from these nationwide trends either. We suffer from the same partisan antipathy, political polarization, and ideological intransigence. Through the Hackworth Fellowship, I intend to heal this divide, so that Santa Clara University may once again become an open market place of ideas, where beliefs are widely respected but also regularly challenged. I am joining the Hackworth Fellowship because “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion... Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them”.