When You Assume

A few days before the presidential election, I was talking to a friend from North Carolina. He told me that, when Obama was first elected in 2008, a number of his peers showed up wearing black the next day, mourning the “death of America.” I wasn’t surprised. As a Texas-born, Tennessee-raised liberal, I’d seen similar things. While I have never felt personally attacked by people’s political comments, I grew up hearing enough uncontested comments to make me want to hightail it across the Mason-Dixon Line as soon as possible. Election season or not, it is both frustrating and alienating to live in a culture where it is simply assumed that everyone agrees—and you do not.

But, at Harvard, I have found the same problem, I am just on the other side of it. I’ve met plenty of professors, teaching fellows, tutors, and classmates who assumed that any truly educated and conscious American would vote Democrat in this election. These outspoken liberals are not wrong in thinking that most other people agree. A recent Crimson survey found that 77 percent of Harvard students supported Obama. Only 17 percent backed Romney, meaning that almost four out of every five students would be happily nodding along with pretty much any anti-Romney attack.

Still, four out of five students isn’t everyone. Unfortunately, liberals here often seem to assume they can speak disparagingly about candidates, platforms, and voters and not risk quashing any opposing views. I have heard many people at Harvard comfortably criticizing conservatism without first considering their audience.  It seems that the idea of a kind and intelligent conservative just doesn’t fit into their view of the Harvard community.

When you start off with that viewpoint, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have an unproductive discussion—and, for that matter, an unproductive democracy. Our system works best when there’s open communication about ideas, when we take the time to listen to each other and move toward a more complete understanding. But there’s little room for discussion when one person has been cast as wrong, or misguided, or offensive before he’s even gotten a chance to speak. Faced with this, many will simply choose not to speak up; those that do will often be either the very brash or the very dogmatic. And, while that conversation may be interesting, many other opportunities for more moderate discussions will have been lost.

Perhaps the issues at stake in this election felt more personal. Many saw a vote for the Republican Party as a direct attack on their way of life or the lives of others, concluding that anyone who voted for Romney must personally hate gays, minorities, immigrants, and women. That might be true for some Romney supporters. Yet social issues are complicated, and there are many paths to the same conclusions. Just because there are bigots who oppose the DREAM Act does not mean that everyone who opposes the DREAM Act is a bigot. Also, of course, due to our two-party system, many Republicans didn’t agree with all of Romney’s social positions—almost all voters have to make some sacrifices when choosing how to cast their ballots. A mere party affiliation can only reveal so much about a person’s beliefs on each specific issue.

More discussion will not necessarily make us all agree. But Harvard’s Democrats must be aware that assuming everyone agrees with them can come off as disrespectful and shut down conversations—whether it’s an election year or not.

Leah J. Schulson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Eliot House.

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