Stratton and Sawhney: Preparing to approach politics on campus

Abigail Stratton and Asha Sawhney, Columnists

Few people would deny Northwestern is a politically-minded campus. Even if most of our student body isn’t involved with a political club such as College Democrats or College Republicans, many of us at least read and have opinions about politics and current events. This campus hosts speakers on American politics, international relations and everything in between. Not only do individuals want to educate themselves and be involved, but the University itself wants us to participate in political discussion.

To learn about political events on campus or find an article about some controversy, you just have to log into Facebook. Many of those posting about politics are other NU students, especially now that election season is here.

We are incredibly proud to go to school where we can discuss issues and learn from one another. However, these conversations often are conducted in a counter-productive manner. Individuals leave large-group conversations feeling like they just wasted a half an hour talking in circles and, many times, feeling as though they had been attacked or insulted. Many of us can relate to this sentiment, or have heard our peers echo it. The problem, in many cases, is the way in which we approach conversations about politics.

Stratton: Think critically and seek growth through political discussion

With election season upon us and the craziness starting to ensue, students are beginning to develop opinions about the presidential candidates. The majority of Northwestern students are of voting age, so it is fantastic that some of us are starting to focus more on politics. I am sure that as the election gets closer the focus on campus will shift more to the candidates and one big question: Who are you going to vote for?

This is productive. It is wonderful that college students are taking interest in politics and educating themselves to make informed decisions. However, when it comes to having political discussions with peers, there is a right and a wrong way to do it.

I have participated in or watched political conversations at NU and left thinking, “That was a gigantic waste of my time, and I just lost 45 minutes of studying for my midterm.” I have left other conversations thinking, “Wow, what a jerk, I feel really insulted and am going to avoid any controversial topics with this person from now on.” I have also had constructive, useful conversations that left me more informed.

Surprisingly, the conversation that left me feeling insulted was with someone whose opinion I agreed with. Meanwhile, a talk with someone I disagreed with was educational and made me think more critically about my own opinion. The difference between these scenarios was the way in which we approached the conversations.

We have to think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of any candidate we support or any issue we approach. Make an effort to have constructive conversations. We should not pull a Donald Trump and insult someone over something superficial or irrelevant to the topic at hand. Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion and the right to be heard. However, there are times when event having a discussion is pointless. Conversations cease to be constructive when 1) someone is not listening, 2) one or multiple participants do not understand something, 3) one or multiple people are misinformed, 4) someone becomes upset or starts being aggressive. Often in these situations, someone leaves the conversation feeling insulted. This does not help anyone.

I am not asking NU students to all agree with one another or stop having political conversations, but to think about the way we conduct them. I love that NU students are incredibly passionate, but you will not change everyone’s — or possibly anyone’s — mind in one conversation. Yelling, lecturing or tuning out other opinions because you disagree leads only to hurt feelings and divisions on our campus.

We can all help each other by being open to learning about all sides of an argument. By changing the way we approach these conversations, we leave room for growth. In doing so, it is easier for everyone to learn facts they would not have otherwise known and be exposed to other ideas and opinions in a constructive manner. So, although it is important to have these discussions, it is equally important to do it in such a way that all parties leave feeling good about having had a constructive discussion instead of studying for their midterm.

Sawhney: Navigating political activism at Northwestern

Although it’s true most Northwestern students don’t make it through their week without overhearing or participating in a political conversation, there is still a lot we can do as a student body to engage meaningfully in politics, particularly around election season.

Although we all have an image of NU as a politically active campus, there is an unhealthy tendency for students to silo themselves into either political or apolitical groups. Usually student activists are seen as the opinionated types with a stake in politics, and those who do not identify as activists feel they should stay away from the issues being discussed on campus. This phenomenon hurts both sides.

Student activists are hurt because they commit their time and energy to various movements to impact campus, and their efforts are often brushed off by those who don’t feel they will gain anything from involving themselves with these issues. I am by no means saying everyone needs to become an activist, but I do encourage everyone to at least listen to the perspectives these groups provide or attend an event that they work hard to put on.

On the other hand, I believe those who shy from political movements on campus are hurt because nearly everyone on this campus holds political views, or has a movement they care about, and we are all in a unique setting where we have the resources to constantly learn, build on and evolve our worldview. Additionally, voter turnout statistics show millennials have ample room for improvement, with just 21.3 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voting in the 2014 midterm election.

So how can NU students take advantage of the resources on campus this election season? How can we make our engagement meaningful by maximizing its scope and taking it beyond posts on social media?

The first step, if you haven’t already, is to register to vote. After 30 days on campus, students can register either in Illinois or their home state. In Illinois, voters can register online, but this isn’t the case for all states. Students should check what the process and requirements are to vote in their home states and whether they would like to vote in Illinois or send in an absentee ballot. Remember, sending in an absentee ballot requires advanced planning.

If campaigning is of interest to you, College Democrats and College Republicans are great resources for getting involved in canvassing and fundraising. However, if your interests are more movement-specific, attending educational events put on by student groups is a great place to start.

Outside of formal events, simply conversing with peers about their work using the guidelines Abby mentions is an excellent way to stay engaged. Personally, as a member of Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators, I am thrilled when someone approaches me with a curiosity about the work we do, because I can use my training to inform others and make an impact on the campus culture.

Lastly, it is a big frustration for most that a single conversation usually cannot change someone’s mind. I suggest moving away from changing someone’s mind as the initial goal, and instead focus on the intrinsic value of active listening. Likewise, challenge yourself to have a difficult conversation more than once, or look into Sustained Dialogue as a resource to have deeper conversations. We have a wealth of resources on campus, and everyone has room to learn and grow as political issues are brought to the forefront this election season.

Abigail Stratton is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. Asha Sawhney is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor [email protected]

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.