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COMMENTARY: Current political climate necessitates meaningful discourse

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was a junior living on Morrell Street and working at The Daily Targum. I awoke to my find my roommate staring at the Twin Towers imploding on television. Outside, roars from F-15 fighter jets screamed across the perfectly blue sky. Television was my salvation. For weeks on end I obsessed over al-Qaeda, Islamic extremism and the perfect military response. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was changing. My belief system and worldview began to calcify. To disagree with me no longer meant you had an opinion that differed from mine, but simply that you were wrong and you were stupid for not knowing you were wrong. Why didn’t you know that invading Iraq made perfect sense? That no one could ever get intelligence gathering wrong? Fifteen years later, 9/11 taught me that we’re wrong about what we think we “know” and that we should operate on that assumption. The experts who could have never imagined it were wrong. The experts who said they knew how to respond were wrong. The experts who said they knew just how to fight this were wrong. All of them, including me, wrong. Which brings me to Donald Trump.

If you’re like me, you are shocked and appalled at having to say the word President Donald Trump. You feel as if your very foundation, what you’ve held dear for so long about yourself and the story of this country, has been ripped from you. My question to you now is: What are you going to do about it? What’s your response to this visceral change you feel? You could do what most people did after 9/11 and go into your respective political corners. You could, for instance, genuinely believe that students who voted for Trump are racist fools who could care less about your well being or that of the planet. You could, on the other hand, grow so weary of pro-Hillary supporters discussing her flaws as nothing but a right-wing Fox News machine, that you no longer want to engage in discourse. Both of these choices may make us feel good, but they do nothing to advance our respective causes. Discourse, right now, is the only antidote we have to what’s going on. Discourse, the very principle behind democracy, is what we should all try and engage in.

When you leave college, you can’t exactly scream “MAGA!!” in the elevator on your way to your job (though if you do, please send me the video). You can’t talk to your Uber driver about your concern over Planned Parenthood because that’s weird, and you know it’s weird. However, you are, right now, matriculated in a liberal arts institution that values and needs diversity, not just of ethnicity and religion, but also of opinion. Talk to people on the other side of the political spectrum to understand why they voted the way they did. Listen empathetically to their stories. Don’t try and change their minds. Don’t try and think of a responses as soon as they start talking. Just listen. Learn about their backgrounds. If you listen to a poor person from Camden tell you why she voted for Trump because her parents haven’t had a stable job in years, I assure you, you will not magically turn into a Trump supporter. What you may do is look at things in a slightly different way. We don’t do enough of this because it’s easy not to. It’s easy to make judgments about other people and tell ourselves stories. It’s easy to assume the woman from Newark is voting Hillary and the guy from Cherry Hill is voting Trump. But you’d be shocked to learn how different people’s views are.

John Stuart Mill espoused the Marketplace of Ideas. The idea that the “truth” will emerge from the competition of ideas during public discourse. We don’t have enough of that now. We have misguided safe spaces and political caricatures. We don’t have enough people willing to engage in actual, real discourse. I regret that I didn’t do more of that when I was a student at Rutgers. I hope you won’t make the same mistake that I did.

Daniel Gershburg is a Rutgers University, Livingston College Class of 2003 alumnus.

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