TLDR: My view on 3 generations of Obies regarding discussions on Politics and Activism and how we can do better and think bigger.
I’ve had the opportunity this weekend of attending the Oberlin Commencement and Reunion Weekend. While I’ve had fun making jokes about the way my parents and their college peers dance to 80’s music at the Sco, a more insightful experience was sitting in on two panels.
The first panel was titled “Activism and Its Potential: Then, Now, and Onward” , which was led by the 50th anniversary Oberlin Class of 1968. The second was arranged by the 35th Cluster Group of ’82, ’83, and ’84 graduates on the topic of “Living in Interesting Time: The Changing Political Landscape”
I was moved to speak during both discussions, but did not have the opportunity to speak my mind, so I thought I’d put it here. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, or perhaps this is not the proper platform, but I think whatever discourse this may (or may not) incite could only serve for the better.
As the youngest attendee at the two panels, both of which were mostly homogeneous in their age (old), race (white), and political (very liberal) dispositions, I thought it was very valuable to hear how older generations view and act upon the political, social, and economic climate that we are growing up in. It was also amazing to see how the activist spirit of Oberlin remains an integral part of an Obies’ life throughout their time on campus, into their careers, and then beyond as they return to campus 35 or 50 years after graduation.
But no matter how inspired and invigorated I am now to finally become a part of this legacy and community of progress and believing “one person can change the world”, I can’t help but feel that there is still something missing, or something that could be done better, that the older generations of Obies haven’t gotten into their conversations.
In both discussions, the issue of talking to those we disagree with came up. President Ambar even addressed it in her speech to the alumni, citing Oberlin initiatives to generate dialogue and conversation between students of varying beliefs and backgrounds to inspire change and collaboration.
Many people agreed that yes, Obies have a tendency to fall into confirmation bias traps, learning about topics from viewpoints they already agree with or talking to people who share their sentiments. Some thought more diverse discussions were in order, while others argued that conversations with those on the opposite side of the spectrum will do little to attract new people to your side, as they are already set in their own beliefs. A Class of ’19 student (only attending because they were on duty for sound/tech support) spoke up about their belief that it is not their job to validate their non-binary and bisexual identity to those who immediately disregard the reality of their existence. While I see the merit in both arguments, conversing with others of wildly different beliefs as well as not bothering, I still think that they’re not thinking big enough.
Granted both discussions were on the topics of Activism and Politics, but I believe there is much more change that can be enacted in the world when we stop thinking that “communicating across differences” means talking to those who simply have different political positions than we do. Of course, there is nothing simple in political beliefs, but if we let the issue of ideological diversity signify right vs left, red vs blue, we’re falling into and perpetuating the trap of polarization and binary thinking.
A quote by Les Leopold, Class of ’69, left a significant impression on me: “our activism is divided into issue silos”. He described how an incredibly overlooked issue, one of the differences from now to going to college in the 60’s, is that activism is now marked by various groups crying out that their single issue is The #1 Issue We Face, whether that be climate change, women’s rights, black lives, homelessness, food security, or hundreds or thousands of other issues. He said that while activism is still so strong, there is no glue binding these groups together. Each one has their own agenda and belief in how to make change, which is even forcing people with similar beliefs apart based on which issue they prioritize above all others.
Our class, the transition between true Millennials and Gen-Z-ers, faces a somewhat interesting dilemma giving the technological and societal advances we’ve grown up with. The president for almost half our lives was African American. Gay marriage is a lawful reality and issues of gender and sexuality are more openly discussed. However, that does not mean that black or queer people are no longer oppressed or marginalized. We know that the systems of oppression from hundreds of years ago are still at work and we must combat them.
Another young student of ’17 commented on how our generation is more likely to have lost faith in the current system and manner our society and government functions, which starkly contrasted against the multiple stories of ’68 classmates who described their activist successes in careers working within the system rather than simply against it. Their careers started with their activism on Oberlin’s campus 50 years ago, in a time of agitation not unlike what we are seeing today.
Yet activism no longer begins only upon setting foot on a college campus. As we’ve seen this past year, political unrest is affecting the population at an increasingly younger age. The class of 2022 that is starting their freshman year at Oberlin now is the year of high school kids that protested and walked out of class to march for the lives of their peers.
But that’s just a start. We will do better. Instead of discussing issues across political and ideological differences, discourse needs to span across various disciplines and expertise. We are attending a liberal arts college after all. Why should the politicians only know politics, the economists only understand the market, the scientists only apply their own research, the artists only create in their preferred medium? Like the political issue silos, various majors and professionals work isolated from one another.
To really change the world, it’s going to take more than one person working within the system. It’s going to take more than one person fighting against the system. It will require a coalition of the brightest minds from every field, identity, and ideology. It doesn’t begin with conversations and talking to those that are different from you.
It begins with listening.