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Editorial: Toward a productive political culture

The political engagement of Brown’s students is a cornerstone and a privilege of the education here. As tour guides will trumpet, Brown is not a campus where learning is constrained to the classroom. For many students, the most memorable lessons of their undergraduate experiences will come not from a professor nor a scholarly text but from their peers who, passionate in their desire to see a more equitable world, push them to take note of injustices, challenge inequities and take part in a more tolerant way of treating each other.

But Brown’s political culture also leaves some students scratching their heads and others shaking them. Those students who feel left out of the crowd are not just conservatives: Republicans, as fall 2015 Herald poll data indicate, likely account for fewer than one of 10 students here. Yet nearly one in four spring 2015 Herald poll respondents said they felt either somewhat or very uncomfortable expressing their political views on campus. It would be concerning already if every centrist or right-of-center thinker on campus feared voicing their beliefs; the fact that liberals, who largely agree with the predominating political sentiments on campus, likewise find political discourse foreboding demands attention.

Reluctance to talk politics on campus has two roots in Brown’s distinctively progressive culture. The first is ideological absolutism or purity politics, an unproductive code of action holding that those who share the vast majority of your values but differ from you on one or two points are your enemies or, worse, propagators of hate. The second, building on the first, is a quickness to denounce peers who disagree with us. Addressing what we find offensive can be fruitful; in fact, students’ willingness to engage each other on the issues is exactly what makes schooling here special. But engaging someone should rarely mean immediate condemnation, as condemnation, rather than helping the person in question understand why he has offended, is more likely to foreclose the possibility of engagement and even to engender resentment.

To be clear: There are some beliefs we should be glad to see diminished — racism, sexism, homophobia and the like have no place on campus. The fact that Brown’s political culture is a progressive one favoring public displays of tolerance and deterring those of hate is part of the privilege of being here. But in working with the University to shape a more diverse and inclusive Brown, it is incumbent upon students to treat each other with understanding. We must remember that not everyone comes to Brown with the same understanding of the issues that we may hold dear. Students with fewer pre-college educational resources in particular may not have had the same opportunities to grapple with the complexities of structural inequities as their more privileged peers — at least not in the academic, discursive way we have the privilege to do here at Brown. So, when talking politics with peers, be passionate, be willing to engage with those who disagree with you and be generous.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s 126th editorial board: Emma Jerzyk ’17, Joseph Zappa ’17, Andrew Flax ’17 and Caroline Kelly ’17. Send comments to


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