Last week, the Amherst College Republicans invited the Amherst College Democrats to a political discussion. This would be the first official meeting between the two groups in months. However, the Democrats refused the invitation in a strongly-worded statement, saying that the offensive remarks made in the Amherst Republicans GroupMe (and subsequently published by The Amherst Student) made such a meeting impossible. The Democrats’ official letter said, “We cannot in good faith collaborate with the Amherst College Republicans in any event, political or otherwise.”
The stance of the Amherst Democrats is shortsighted, ill-conceived and unproductive. Refusing to meet with the Republicans only contributes to polarization and further alienates conservative students on campus. As a liberal, I am embarrassed by the statement made by the Amherst Democrats, even as I am disgusted by the messages sent in the Republicans’ GroupMe.
The messages sent in the GroupMe have been rightly denounced as offensive, transphobic and wrong. But what good does it do to give the Amherst Republicans the equivalent of the silent treatment? Surely the way to create change and champion social justice is by directly engaging and persuading the people with whom you disagree rather than remaining secluded and peaceful on your moral high ground.
Cutting off all political contact with the Republicans would be bad enough, but by extending the refusal to “any event, political or otherwise,” the Democrats have closed off any possibility of official social contact with the Republicans. Political disagreements should not extend into all spheres of life, and social events with political opponents can be a great tool for increasing understanding and camaraderie without actually discussing politics. By closing off this option, the Democrats have made politics both all-consuming and binary.
The Democrats’ hard-line approach also harms everyone on campus. More than simply depriving the Republicans of their company, they are denying all students the opportunity to see a public debate on an important subject. The Republicans, faced with this public rejection of bipartisanship, will likely only become more insular, disconnected and radical. The Democrats say that they refuse to meet with the Republicans on the basis of their “culture,” but the Democrats are implicitly contributing to that very same culture by ostracizing the Republicans. Wrongful action by the Republicans does not give the Democrats an excuse to harm the intellectual richness of Amherst College.
The statement by the Democrats, however honest its intentions, gives off the impression of meaningless symbolism. The Democrats know that this ban on all-contact cannot last forever, and even say as much in the statement. This puts them in an awkward situation. Eventually they will have to rescind the ban, even if the Republicans do nothing to change their culture or apologize for their statements. But if the Republicans have said something so offensive that it merits cutting off all discourse, does the passage of time really make the statement less offensive? The only way for the Democrats to remain consistent with the ideals named in the document is for them to cut off all contact with Republicans forever, unless the Republicans retract their statements. If, on the other hand, the Democrats engaged directly with the Republicans, they would be in a position to defend, rather than compromise their ideals.
The Democrats’ response would be destructive enough if its polarity was overt, but it instead masks its extremism with the premise of reconciliation. The Democrats’ statement includes a great deal of moderating language, like stating that the views expressed in the GroupMe are not the views of all Amherst Republicans and acknowledging that “it’s essential to our democracy that we test our ideas against [the Republicans] in a public forum.” Yet the actions of the Democrats stand directly in opposition to their words. It is easy to claim moderation while embracing the opposite. I challenge the Amherst Democrats to take the difficult path and either state their actual policy or embrace the bipartisanship to which they pay lip service.
I believe in liberal values and in their power to persuade. If the Democrats are confident in the righteousness of their own views, they should seek out opposing viewpoints, because the correct side has nothing to fear from an open and rational discussion of policy. When the opposing side says something offensive, debate becomes more, not less, important. Intellectual discourse is a cure for intolerance, not a transmitter.
I have many friends who were involved in or supported the creation of the Democrats’ statement. I don’t intend to break off debate with them, just as I know that they will respond to this article with open discussion and thoughtful criticism. One of the most damaging aspects of offensive speech is how it rips apart friendships and destroys reasoned debate. I challenge the Democrats to live up to the moral high ground which they claim to have by being the first to extend a hand and proving that offensive speech should not be allowed to silence all political discussion.