Through the Looking Glass

Margot  Cleveland
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Posted: Nov 23, 2016 12:01 AM
Through the Looking Glass

When it comes to today’s political discourse, Americans have stepped through the looking glass. We have turned pleasant meals with extended family into combative bouts of political pontification. And colleges have replaced intellectual curiosity and inquisitiveness with stilted lectures designed to limit offense and, failing that, comfort food and cry rooms.

As early as the 1840s, etiquette taught never to discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. This election season, the Emily Post Institute confirmed that “the classic advice is ‘never discuss politics or religion,…” but it also recognized that passionate beliefs often lead to such conversations. Miss Manners (Judith Martin) wrote more bluntly of the demise of this nearly two-century-long convention: “What happened to the etiquette rule banning casual social discussions of politics and religion is that it is roundly pooh-poohed and ignored. At best, it is thought to be a prissy and unnecessary restriction of adult conversation; at worst, it is considered a repression of free speech and the democratic process.”

Not only has this long-standing rule of etiquette been abandoned, but three years ago in a pre-holiday email message, President Obama’s Organizing for Action harkened in a whole new era of boorishness by urging supporters to use their Thanksgiving gatherings to convince recalcitrant uncles of the benefits of Obamacare. With the unraveling of the “Affordable” Care Act, the talking points have since been scrubbed from the web, but the well-deserved ridicule of those holiday conversation-starters remains timeless.

Yet the Crazy-Uncle spin-offs continue. There are multiple guidelines for talking to your denier-uncle about climate change and for converting your pro-KXL-pipeline uncle. And in 2014, Vox offered a virtual Anniversary Collection of the franchise, providing talking-points on common core, immigration, Israel, and Ferguson.

And, of course, with Election 2016 still recent history, guidelines for talking to your MAGA uncle abound: Sally Kohn is single-handily providing a multi-part tutorial on Facebook and Twitter. Using talking stick-people, Kohn illustrates alternative responses for her profanity-prone followers. Kohn claims that by following her lead, the holiday will morph from an encounter to survive to a productive Thanksgiving. But poor Uncle Bob: the only thing he wants Thanksgiving to produce is indigestion from overeating and a Lions’ victory.

As is often the case when society abandons traditional norms, the results are not pretty. Families are now abandoning Thanksgiving entirely rather than interact with relatives on the other side of the political spectrum. The New York Times told of this fall out, in Political Divide Splits Relationships—and Thanksgiving Too, highlighting three families who have altered plans (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even a wedding!) to avoid socializing with the enemy. The Huffington Post also recognized that polarizing conversations at family gatherings aren’t such a good idea, writing in its “piece,” How to Talk to Your Crazy Uncle At Thanksgiving About Syrian Refugees, a simple three-word “talking” point: “Don’t Do It.”

Nonetheless, most are. And not only are Americans debating politics where we shouldn’t be, we aren’t discussing them where we should be—in institutions of higher education.

In exalting his brainchild, the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famous wrote: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, not to tolerate any error, so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Jefferson’s vision of higher education is as removed from modern life as are pleasant apolitical holiday conversations. In just the last few years, the press has been flush with stranger and stranger tales of university life. What started as innocuous Student Conduct Codes, turned into vague speech-codes which served to squelch opposing viewpoints. A further mutation found faculty members outright prohibiting students from presenting a contrary perspective.

Such was the case at Marquette University where, according to an undergraduate student, his philosophy instructor told students that “everyone agrees” on gay marriage and thus there is no reason to discuss it. As the College Fix reported, when confronted by the student, the instructor told him “that gay students could be offended if he shared his view, and . . . that he did not have the right to make ‘homophobic comments or racist comments’” in class.

But at least that student was only told to keep quiet. Students at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs were told, via email, “that human induced climate change is valid and occurring,” and that students for whom that premise was an issue should not take the course.

From there, colleges began banning speakers. Most recently, DePaul University barred Ben Shapiro from speaking at a Young Americans for Freedom event (on campus tolerance!) going so far as to call on officers to arrest Shapiro should he step foot on campus.

As the mind atrophied, the spirit crumbled: students demanded trigger warnings and safe spaces. And universities complied. The prevalence of the safe-space mentality led to the recent announcement of one of the most amusing “events” organized to date: The University of Michigan Law School planned (and then canceled) a play-in for students to recover from Trump’s election. While the University later deleted the event from its webpage, The Daily Caller had already captured the hilarious announcement, which beckoned students to a lunch-hour gathering replete with “comfort food,” coloring, bubbles, and play dough.

As a lawyer (and thus a former law student), I must just ask: If Trump’s election caused this much distress, what will 1Ls need to comfort them after their upcoming first set of final exams? Candy pacifiers?

While most of the safe-space and trigger-warning stories play out perfectly for ridicule, the University of California-Los Angeles’ creation of a Halisi Scholars’ program, which reserves 20 spots in a dorm complex for black students, reeks of segregation. And that is no laughing matter.

It’s time Americans take a good hard look in the mirror, leave this topsy-turvy world, and return etiquette to the dining room, intellectual tension to the classroom, and diversity of viewpoints to the college campus.