David King ’20 contributed to this article.
This article is part of a Clerk Special Edition on politics, free speech, and the election at Haverford. We will be posting a new article every day this week.
Trust, concern, and respect are the fundamental values upon which the Haverford community is based. But for many of the 7% of students who are registered Republicans and the 28% who are registered independents, the college has failed to live up to these values when it comes to discussing their moderate and conservative political beliefs.
In a survey conducted by The Clerk last semester, 94% of respondents said conservative viewpoints are stigmatized on campus and 41% of students said they felt somewhat to very stigmatized for their political beliefs [ed. note: the full results of the survey will be published later this week]. The fact that nearly every person on campus recognizes the marginalization of these opinions raises some troubling questions about the political climate at Haverford and why our Quaker values do not always extend to political conversations.
“When I bring up [that I’m conservative] in conversation, the mood changes,” said Michael Schwarze ‘18, the co-president of the Haverford College Republicans. “If I say that I’m Republican that’s something I need to address immediately.” Schwarze is a fiscally conservative, socially liberal student who has voted for Republicans in the past.
According to the survey and interviews conducted by The Clerk, issues of identity, particularly race, are subjects that many conservatives are afraid to even touch because they actively fear being called racist. These fears are not unfounded.
As the founder of the Haverford chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), an organization dedicated to promoting Libertarian principles such as smaller government and personal freedoms, Jay Colon ‘19 is one of the most prominent conservative-leaning students on campus, though the views he expresses in this article are his own. Colon, who identifies as Latino and a right-leaning Libertarian, said he faced personal attacks after founding the group.
After announcing YAL, “I remember almost immediately being called racist,” said Colon. When he told people he was Latino, “I was immediately called an Uncle Tom to my face.” He added that “that’s something you get quite a bit” if you’re a person of color who identifies as conservative.
Survey respondents echoed these feelings [sic for all comments]. One student wrote, “Haverford students act as if conservatives are ignorant racist white slave owners.” Another wrote that they felt their opinions were automatically invalidated by their own identities. “Some people I have spoken with have routinely insinuated that, if you are a white cis male, for example, not only are your opinions regarding LGBTQ issues and policies wrong, but you are not permitted to have an opinion,” they said.
Colon said that too often a person’s political beliefs are conflated with who they are as a person, ending any hope of productive dialogue. He added that if you are white and conservative, some other students immediately call you racist. If you identify as a person of color, you are labeled a “race traitor.”
Some survey respondents agreed. “A lot of people operate under the delusion that someone expressing even moderate political beliefs can disqualify them from being a good, caring, empathetic person,” said one student. But another noted that the personal is always political, and lived experience plays a huge role in one’s political beliefs. Students with marginalized identities can feel that moderate and conservative views are also a dismissal of their lived experience.
Some students responding to the survey said that conservative viewpoints should be stigmatized because they are inherently biased against marginalized communities. “Conservatives aren’t stigmatized, they’re called out for being fucked up people and denying the humanity of different groups for their own goddamn gain,” wrote one respondent. “Then they feel attacked because they are being criticized for their fucked up beliefs.” Another said, “you wanna talk about the stigmatization of conservative opinions well lets talk about the stigma conservative people create against marginalized folks.”
Schwarze and Colon both said Trump’s candidacy has only made this problem worse by creating an immediate association between being conservative and supporting Trump. Schwarze disagreed with that idea, adding that most–but not all–conservative students at Haverford are not Trump supporters. The Haverford College Republicans do not endorse Trump, something Schwarze said they planned to address at their first meeting.
“He’s made it so [many] people who are Republican need to distinguish themselves from him in some way,” said Schwarze. At the same time, “the beauty of a democracy” is that people can vote for whomever they want, and some conservatives see his fiscal policy “as really strong and see that as more important than some of his social policies” they may disagree with.
Schwarze also pointed out that most conservative students identify as fiscally conservative but socially liberal, something backed up by the survey results.
Fears of stigmatization are not limited to social interactions, but play out in the classroom as well, particularly in Political Science courses.
In one intro level course, Schwarze recounts that he was the only openly conservative student in a class of forty-two students. When he brought up conservative viewpoints, other students would laugh and immediately dismiss his points.
“[Both parties] want what’s best for the people” though they go about it in different ways, he said. “That’s something we need to keep in mind.”
Some conservative students also fear that professors who they view as liberal will lower their grades if they express a different viewpoint. Colon said he knows at least one student who changed their essay topic, which was an argument in favor of the right to bear arms, because they knew it would conflict with the professor’s personal beliefs.
“[Professors] should talk about how just because [a conservative idea] isn’t something that you see it isn’t a bad idea,” said Schwarze. Professors need to challenge their students “to think about why some people support that idea and what the pros of that idea are even if it seems against your views. They need to show these ideas in a neutral light.”
Colon said that the campus protects liberal voices over conservative ones. He further noted that the discrepancy between the two sides is for convenience, stating that, “It’s easier to disagree with a point of view if you don’t have to talk about it.”
“I see safe spaces and PC culture as counterintuitive,” said Colon. “One cannot discuss [certain issues] meaningfully by first shutting oneself in and excluding quite a few people, then deciding ‘everything that goes on in this space must be inherently correct.’ It goes back to the idea [that] you can’t discuss [conservative viewpoints] because they are inherently wrong. Instead of attacking the arguments, they attack you as a person.”
At the same time, Colon acknowledged that Haverford is better than most other colleges, praising Haverford President Kim Benston’s openness to controversial conversations.
“You hear horror stories of organizations being shut down for bringing speakers that were approved and students being suspended for bringing up certain points of view” and this would not happen at Haverford, said Colon. “[Benston seems] very happy to have alternative viewpoints on campus other than the ones most students share.”
Schwarze and Colon both said the main problem with this stigmatization is that it stymies campus discussions. About a fifth of the survey comments agreed, saying that Haverford often feels like an echo chamber when it comes to politics.
“[Having challenging political discussions] was actually a big reason why I came to Haverford,” said Schwarze. “I wanted an environment that would challenge my views to help make them stronger.”
While conservative students are the ones who feel the most stigma, lack of discussion is bad for the school as a whole.
“If you’re on a campus where there’s only one viewpoint, that’s not a good thing,” said Schwarze. “There needs to be some effort to protect [conservative viewpoints] because they challenges you to think, which is what a liberal arts school is trying to do.”
“We need to have the highest possible toleration of ideas we find difficult,” said Benston. “We have no business shutting down someone else’s opinion by ‘profiling’ that person politically, economically, socially, or ethnically. But by ‘toleration’ I don’t mean we should simply grit our teeth in silence after hearing a debatable opinion. I mean that we should be willing to engage with contrary ideas––or respond to such engagement––in a respectful and deliberative way.”
Colon and Schwarze both said they did not believe conservative viewpoints would be fully destigmatized unless there was a huge upsurge in conservative students, something both feel is unlikely. But according to Schwarze, more open discussion could help mitigate the problem.
“[One of the goals] of the Haverford College Republicans is to promote that Republicans shouldn’t feel bad about voicing their opinions,” said Schwarze. “The goal is not to start an argument; the goal is to bring dialogue to the table and find common ground.”
Non-conservative identified students agreed. “I think the most important thing we can do is keep an open mind and focus on a mutual understanding of people’s political beliefs, regardless of how staunch you are in opposition,” said Ethan Lyne ‘19, co-head of No Labels, a group that seeks to foster non-partisan discussion and action to seek remedies to problems such as polarization and the budget crisis. “The most beneficial political discussions are not one-sided rantings against a certain politician, but rather a balanced, vigorous sharing of ideas that gives you the opportunity to truly consider just why you believe something.”
Interestingly, a few comments on the survey also noted that even those who identify as liberal feel stigmatized sometimes. On the more moderate end, they pointed to debates between Bernie supporters and Hillary supporters that happened during the primary last spring.
“I am very liberal, and I have always felt free to express my beliefs, except around this current election,” wrote one respondent. “I would be castigated for saying that it is time to support Hillary Clinton, even with all of her problems, instead of Bernie Sanders, who also has problems.”
Some students who identify as leftist or radical also felt their views were sometimes unacceptable, particularly those whose radical views had to do with race or feminism.
“People on this campus are not radical at all and are pretty afraid of radicalism,” said one survey respondent. “I feel my views have sometimes been shut down for being too radical but radical feminism and anti-racism are super important to me”
But other students disagreed. “I think my anarchist tendencies throw people off sometimes,” said one survey respondent. “Otherwise I think I have engaged in really great discussions with peers and professors alike with very little stigma or shock to my opinions, probably because Haverfordians tend to lean left anyways so my more ‘radical’ idealisms aren’t huge deviations.”
Overall, it is clear that conservative students do not feel like Haverford is living up to the Social Code’s promise that students will not discriminate based on political ideology. Most of campus agrees that this is a problem we need to address, both in our social lives and academically.
“If change does not occur, not only will [conservative] students like myself feel alienated and dejected, but also not feel like a part of this community,” wrote one survey respondent. “Everyone’s opinion should be respected and valued.”