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How Do You Navigate Political Differences In University Classrooms?

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Our identities are informed by the political alignments that we grow up around, and we carry those experiences with us when we enter our classrooms. 

Our time in university is also a very volatile time for a lot of us because our ideas about where our political alignments lie are already changing, and we are developing a political consciousness that is very different from what we previously had. On top of that, many of us begin to grow politically aware of the reality around us during this time. 

All of this makes our universities melting pots for different cultures and varying ideologies. When people with such deep-seated differences encounter each other, their perception of each other remains susceptible to harmful and extreme beliefs.

The reasons for this danger are difficult to keep in check.

People who are like us and have the same ideas about the world as us give strength to our own convictions. Most of our friendships are based on common ideological grounds because that seems natural and healthy to us. But this can have toxic consequences.

The Root Of The Problem

By gravitating towards sameness and multiplying that sameness, we create pockets of homogeneity. What separates these pockets from each other is our awareness of difference. We can be part of multiple pockets, but we will only be active in one at any given time. We can only participate in one pocket at a time because it gives our convictions and ideology a strong presence, which helps in affirming our beliefs. Our awareness of difference not only comes from our identities but also informs our identities.

How Can This Be Toxic?

Our awareness of difference can restrict our willingness to immerse ourselves in other perspectives.

The ‘pocket of homogeneity’ is an analogy for our tendency to be resistant to different/opposing ideologies. We would much rather engage in sameness than try to acknowledge the validity of difference. And while we might be willing to accept difference and respect it, mere awareness of difference will always distance us from pockets of homogeneity that are different from us. We will always be different about political ideologies other than ours.

The difference is obvious, which makes it challenging to acknowledge it. We need to stop thinking of differences as obvious, not take them for granted, not simply make do with awareness or recognition. We need to move past that and acknowledge our differences. Our ability to accept differences will always be tentative if we fail to acknowledge what makes us different from others.

Navigating multiple pockets can therefore be a very difficult, tricky, and draining task. People who hold opinions different from ours are normally not easy to talk to, because we tend to perceive our differences as threats to our own ideas and perspectives. So we tend to ignore those differences or work around them without addressing them. This makes it ‘less natural’ to be friendly with them.

The difference, or the mere awareness of it, becomes a hindrance in our understanding of the other’s position.

Representational Image

When people with different ideologies come together to bridge their differences, they can make their classroom a healthier space for discussion.

The First Necessary Realisation

Encountering political differences can potentially polarise our classrooms if we stop at the awareness of difference. If you are a heterosexual person and are faced with the choice of discussing gender and sexuality either with another heterosexual person or with a queer person, which option will you go for in the majority of cases? The fear of being the antagonist, if you are a politically sensitive person, will push you to go for the former. Going for the latter requires you to be educated about the issue to a certain extent so that your differences become a source of empathy and further learning. The fear of being the antagonist is therefore an obstacle for inclusive and progressive politics within our classrooms.

But there is another side to this: our classrooms are already polarized. Whether or not we are aware of the differences does not affect the presence and validity of those differences. When we have different political ideologies within a small space like a classroom, it is impossible to ignore or dismiss opinions and statements that are outright discriminatory, unethical, and ignorant of political differences. We understand that something about our own political alignments interacts with issues of ignorance and what is right or wrong.

In short, our politics becomes engaged with someone else’s politics. Despite our differences, our political ideologies have the potential to interface with each other and affect one another. This opens up the avenue for the two steps to navigate political differences that I will discuss below. 

Step 1: Go Beyond Accepting Differences. Embrace Them!

When we are in a politically charged conversation, we are taking a stance about the other person’s stance, a political position about their political position. It would be dangerous here to think of oneself as opposing the other in certain debates, even though in essence that is what one would be doing. When we take a stance in opposition to something, we essentially take our differences for granted. This holds the risk of propagating the same prejudices and perceptions that shape our understanding of our own as well as others’ political ideologies outside the classroom.

If we let that happen, there can be no empathy and understanding across differences. Our politics engages us in action and expression for causes that matter, but without empathy, without learning about our differences from perspectives other than our own, we cannot navigate the differences in a manner that actually makes a difference.

Our willingness to learn must come with our willingness to be politically engaged. We cannot take our differences for granted, because making an impact requires those differences to change their relations to each other. Within our classrooms, people with different ideologies can come together to inform each other and bridge their differences. This not only creates a healthy learning environment but also makes the classroom space a safe space for divergent political thought and critical thinking.

It is important to emphasize that this is possible only when we are willing to listen to each other and learn from our disagreements when we are willing to stop thinking of our political differences as simply personal oppositions.

 The ‘agree to disagree’ attitude is definitely not the right way to go if we want to be able to navigate our political differences, because our disagreements about political issues are not personal in nature. They are political in nature. 

But it is easy to substitute one for the other. We should be wary of doing that. We can substitute the personal with the political, potentially making our interactions across differences meaningful. But to substitute the political with the personal reduces our chances of empathizing and coming together as a community. There is no inherent threat of indifference.

Step 2: Stop Yourself When You Feel Like You’re Being Apolitical

If embracing our differences is the first step, then the second step should be to overcome the apprehensiveness of offending people who hold different opinions and also of being offended by those people. 

Politics by nature is divisive. The stronger our political convictions are, the more reactionary and divisive our encounters with different political ideologies. The apprehensiveness to step over the boundaries that we lay down for ourselves usually stems from a fear of being invalidated or invalidating by someone else. So we have to ask ourselves the question: what does being apprehensive in this context mean, and what does getting over it bring to us?

Representational Image

While it is important to be inclusive of other opinions, one shouldn’t be apolitical.

Today, the need to navigate our differences has become important for the majority of us because of a growing apprehension towards suppressing and undermining voices and experiences that don’t come from the same place as ours. For minorities, this need has grown in importance so that they can make themselves heard, and be able to act effectively for a better, safer place for themselves. Our apprehensions can therefore make our classrooms uncomfortable for politically charged discussions, more specifically for political minorities, and can harm our relations with people across differences.

If we can embrace our differences, then all our different political ideologies will be engaged at once. What this gives us is the chance to learn how politics affects people in real-time, in turn showing us how our own political ideologies are constructed and where they ignore aspects of reality that don’t touch us directly. Not only does this create a healthy environment in our classrooms, but also makes way for better, healthier friendships, and teaches us about how the same political issues touch different people’s lives at any given point in time.

There Is No Default Map Of Political Differences

If we are to navigate our differences, we need to be able to see the other from the eyes of the other, to be empathetic and not just sympathetic. Simply accepting our differences does not help us navigate them even though it is the first step in the process. Being able to step over our boundaries and actually immerse ourselves in the politics that are shaped by our differences is the second, more crucial step. This stepping out is a process in itself. When we are willing to be political with our opinions and beliefs, instead of taking them as extensions of our personality, we are suspending ourselves in a volatile space. We inform each other and support each other.

At least, that’s the ideal.

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