The Ballard Talisman

What cultural trends can teach us about political dialogue

How we can have productive political discussions in the age of Donald Trump

Oscar Zahner, Political Correspondent

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The past two years have seen interesting surges and recessions in the political energy of the school. In saying this, I do not mean to paint the students of Ballard with a broad brush. I recognize and fully support the students whose convictions diverge from the school’s evident political climate for reasons that go beyond simple contrarianism. I do not intend to leave these students out when I refer to the school as a political “unit.”

I refer to the school as a unit because I think teenagers, especially, tend to view politics in cultural terms more than policy terms. And in cultural terms, the political dialogue at Ballard High School is a very revealing microcosm of a much greater discussion.

There’s a sort of universality in the cultural moments that shaped the political identity of students at Ballard, most notably the election of Donald Trump. It was as generation-defining as a moment could be: watching the titans of politics – people and institutions that were thought to be unconquerable – crumble before a force once laughed at, then admonished, but never entertained, not seriously.

For many young liberals who were used to the optimism of the Obama era, it was crushing. In response, some imagined that the disillusioned would only need to dig in their positions, to find solidarity with the rest of the anti-Trump crowd, and to take back the country again. It wouldn’t be easy, but what could inspire a political movement more effectively than a crisis?

And yet, it seems, even among those who opposed Trump in 2016, there has been a disconnect in the dialogue. The election of Donald Trump shifted the political climate to the point where even those who were never swayed by his message nonetheless felt a kindling of mistrust for the left.

Some have been willing to dismiss this as a result of internalized prejudiced and nothing more. But this willingness to write off such a growing attitude as meritless, even malevolent, is part of what has created such a large-scale disillusion with the left. Understanding this sentiment is key to navigating the inflammatory minefield that is political discussion at Ballard.

To fully understand what made Trump a cultural force to be reckoned with, we need to analyze the common frustration with the left, a frustration even felt by many who hold traditionally liberal values. That frustration lies in the left’s apparent inability – or perhaps unwillingness – to draw a clear and reasonable line as to which ideas can reasonably be expected to be entertained by society at large without legitimizing ideas that are radical or overtly harmful.

The notion that some ideas should not be given credibility in politics makes sense – after all, a culture that tolerates racism, homophobia and the like is unlikely to see those ideas leave traditional discourse. But as the left came to dominate formerly apolitical cultural arenas like awards shows and late-night television (to the point where Jimmy Fallon was chastised for his politics-free interview of Donald Trump as if he had failed some political agenda), many felt that the liberal doctrine had become so dogmatic that any divergent thoughts – or even, in some cases, apoliticality – were treated with the same disdain as “intolerable” ideas.

It is a reasonable conclusion that much of the culture industry – Hollywood, talk shows, the music industry – has a vast overrepresentation of liberals. And, if I may advocate for the skeptic of the left, this has effectively made ideas not consistent with the liberal consensus come to be considered extreme.

In response to this cultural monopoly of liberalism, Donald Trump constantly advertised himself as the candidate who would bring an end to “political correctness.” He found support among those who imagined the nation in the clutches of a “liberal elite” bent on relegating all opposition to the confines of the cultural fringe.

And this strategy worked. By decrying supporters of Trump as racist and, more memorably, “deplorable,” liberals were playing directly into their most harmful stereotype: out of touch, condescending, incapable of addressing dissent.

If you hang out with enough teenagers, chances are you’ll hear the word “triggered” or “SJW” or some variation of the like used in a pejorative way. These words are designed to mock liberal tendencies to attack dissenting ideas rather than debate them.

Even in a mostly liberal school this language is commonplace. Even students who don’t support Trump understand, thought they may find themselves unable to articulate, the sentiment that created his appeal as a cultural force.

And these sentiments, brought about by the carelessness of the left, are what’s radicalizing many of the youth towards alt-right interpretations of conservatism. These movements are in part based on the belief that, by taking liberals to task, political discourse will no longer be subject to the liberal interpretation of what ideas are and are not acceptable.

Personally, I have never sympathized with the Trump camp. But I do recognize the suspicion that for many, liberal orthodoxy is so unquestionable that all right-wing ideas seem alien, even immoral.

But this recognition alone does not, as many young Trump supporters might have you think, make one a “free thinker.”

An unfortunate trend among the young in a culture recognizably becoming more liberal is the propensity to believe that simply thinking outside of liberal orthodoxy is in and of itself an act of radically free thought. This inspires them to join intellectual factions that are, ironically, exactly as dogmatic and single minded as the liberalism that disenchanted them, namely, the reactionary movements on the internet collectively anointed the “alt-right.”

Just as liberals sought to capitalize on the culture war by making their worldview seem like the cultural standard, so too is the conservative movement that created Trump trying to capitalize on the culture war by making a vote for a conservative feel like an act of rebellion.

Many become so obsessed with this act of “rebellion” against the liberal fervor to label ideas as intolerable that they become more forgiving of harmful voices in their fold, like murmurs of undeniable, overt racism from Trump supporters and even Trump himself.

The lessons to be learned, for students at Ballard, are that an intolerance of ideas, while healthy only in the most extreme circumstances, alienate potential peers in politics when used to indiscriminately silence dissenting viewpoints, and create reactionary movements like the movement that put Donald Trump in the White House. But those reactionary movements, while potentially appealing to the disillusioned liberal, are toxic and dogmatic movements that are just as guilty of manipulating their followers as liberals who freely label conservative ideas as “intolerable.”

Perhaps it’s cynical to ask the Ballard student that recognizes these two political-cultural movements to be harshly skeptical of both sides. But if liberals are, as many conservatives seem to agree, bad for public discourse, then so too is the alt-right. Students skeptical of expanding liberal influence in culture should not join the political ranks of radical, fringe thinkers simply for an outlet to express their worries about modern liberalism. That kind of thinking creates political crises like the Trump movement.

That being said, if liberals want to quell the allure of the new conservative movement, then they need to overcome their image problem: appearing to be people who find dissent intolerable. They also need to allow for some intellectual diversity in their fold so that those who may hold many but not all of their values do not feel disenchanted by the rigidness of the left’s iron dogma.

Not all of the blame for the tendencies of reactionary movements is on the left, but an effort by the left should be made to be willing to entertain some conservative ideas in the cultural spotlight in order to stop the idea that conservatism is an act of cultural rebellion. Through a greater tolerance of ideas, the left can do a better job of recognizing and refusing to stand for unarguable, overt racism without alienating any who may be skeptical that the left’s tendency to act as the “culture police” is shutting down ideas simply for not aligning with the liberal worldview.

Through a greater tolerance of ideas, the left can kill that movement that was born in response to the left’s cultural omnipresence: the alt-right.

At Ballard, this means that liberal students should be more welcoming of some ideas in traditional conservatism in order to prevent radicalization among conservatives. It also means that conservative students or students with conservative tendencies need to be willing to have discussions about what ideas are and are not acceptable in schoolwide political discourse.

I think Ballard is potentially on track to a mutual understanding between liberals and conservatives the rest of the country lacks. Getting there is possible, but it will require dialogue, tolerance, and, above all, understanding.

Maybe then, political discussions will go from shouting matches or preaching events to productive and honest dialogues. Maybe then, the cultural divide that defines much of the bitterness of our political moment will be undone.

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What cultural trends can teach us about political dialogue