I’ve noticed recently that partisan identity has merged with personal identity, and I doubt I’m the only one to notice this. Political wounds and grievances have ushered in a new, less productive form of political discourse, especially in our classrooms and on campus. I often find myself hesitating when engaging in even informal political conversations with friends; this frequent pause resembles a debate over whether Jesus is the embodiment of God or the rejection of the afterlife: a pause facilitated by the fear of blasphemy, discourtesy and discourtesy. an insult.
I have to admit, I found myself taking a break at UChicago, a university hailed as a sanctuary of unfettered speech, free expression, and diverse perspectives. When discussing solutions to endemic violence with friends after last quarter’s public safety incidents, I found that the conversation began to shift to reiterations of partisan identity. One person stormed off after asking, “How could you believe in a stronger UCPD presence but also support the BLM movement this summer? That’s the problem on your side. This question interrupted our conversation, imbuing partisan wounds with a conversation that should be apolitical. As we began to think of ourselves as political opponents, our conversation gave way to fear of judgment and partisan branding, wasting the potential to discuss practical and productive solutions. It is important that we recognize that the political pause is present even in highly intellectual environments: UChicago is not immune to the mistakes that plague the rest of our country.
If I can generalize, I think that pause comes from treating politics as dogma as invulnerable as religious beliefs, and treating politics as a quasi-religion is totally counterproductive to facilitating open discourse and occasional disagreement . In an article by Atlantic explore the ideological intensity, Shadi Hamid remarks that “American faith, it turns out, is more fervent than ever; it’s just what used to be religious belief has now been channeled into Politics belief.” While frustrating, I understand a shared sanctity between politics and theology. Generally, if political parties are analogous to divine power and our political leaders enjoy idolatry similar to that of religious prophets, Why shouldn’t we reform our conversational sensibilities Why shouldn’t debating someone’s politics be considered sacrilege and taboo?
The treatment of politics and religion piqued my interest when we received emails from university management demanding proof of COVID-19 vaccination to attend the fall term and later proof of vaccine booster for the rest of the academic year. However, students can apply for a religious exemption. I have never questioned the validity of religious exemptions – although now, given the similar treatment of political ideologies and religious beliefs, I wonder if the University should provide similar accommodations to political identities. It’s worth asking: What’s the difference between a fictional political campaign to spread disinformation and an exemption because of religious sentiment? From what I can understand, nothing.
According to a study published by Merek, refusing vaccinations actually reflects organized doubt in a religious community rather than canonical merit. While this may be true, institutions statutorily accept exemptions based on religious belief, so why should those who submit to political vaccine doubt be treated any differently? I’m certainly not advocating vaccine misinformation, but I think it’s a reasonable example of where our political sensibility is heading. I fear that as political ideologies become as indisputable as mainstream theologies, our university policies must favor similar accommodations. And while I’m not attacking religious beliefs either, we can’t offer politics the same flexibility with intangible evidence as theology.
As we continue to weld politics to our identity, we will continue to stop when we come across opinions we don’t agree with. For now, I suggest that we change the way we refer to politics in conversation: in particular, we need to stop adding Politics and belief. I’m tired of being asked, and also asked questions, about my “political beliefs”, which often turn into a boring sermon without bread or holy water. Why do we impose a connotation of intrinsic ideas to describe a profane system? By perpetuating this language, we continue to deride any counterpoint to such ideas as offensive and fall short of the free academic discourse we are meant to put online.
While I encourage all of us to abandon politics as a secular belief system, I believe that our university curriculum is complicit in disregarding political discussions. Our Chicago Principles, which relate to the tradition of free expression, assume that “the mission of the university is the discovery, improvement and dissemination of knowledge” and that “a good university, like Socrates, will be life-changing” . Does this programmatic emphasis on free inquiry seem appropriate in a report titled The role of the university in political and social action?
Although a reference to Socrates and iterations of knowledge might seem in the character of a university, I find that the conversation lacks action. While there is much to be learned from inquiry-fueled classroom discussions, I think our university could better emphasize that political and social action must also materialize from practical and active exploration, particularly within our Hyde Park community and not just ‘society’ in general.
Hopefully separating politics from belief systems and academic theory will mobilize us to register the practical influence of governance. Many of us forget, myself included, that politics doesn’t just exist in the classroom, the dining room or the favorite student cafes, but exists in communities and real people in an entirely material form. and practical. Politics is about people, so rather than using beliefs and theory to decide what people want from their government, we must instead form our theories about the material conditions of our communities.
I encourage the University to see the value of practice as a theory and survey coefficient and not the other way around. I encourage us as students to approach politics as a dynamic and malleable system of thought without taboos or blasphemous viewpoints rather than letting fear and personal identity interrupt our conversations. This way, in coordination with the University, we can foster productive and inviting discussions to begin to see politics as a mechanism for material and practical consequences beyond the artifice of irrefutable beliefs and academic theory.
Henry Cantor is a freshman in college.