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Building Community in Divisive Times

Published October 7, 2020

With the intellectual breadth and power we have on our campus, there are likely passionately and wildly different held beliefs on every issue of national and global importance. During election seasons, some of these differences may be experienced as particularly salient and powerful.

I have been concerned for quite a while about what appears to be growing divisiveness in our nation and a tendency to simplify others who hold disparate opinions.  By that, I mean that our identities are made up of hundreds (certainly more) qualities that reflect biology, life experience, and emotional tendencies. I might disagree with someone on a political candidate but like the same sports, foods, and music as the other. There are many more similarities among humans than differences, but intense political seasons tend to engage people by enraging them on issues that are at least partially representative of mere preferences or opinions rather than evidence.

As we traverse the next weeks, I urge all of us to focus on similarities and points of commonality.  All employees know that we are forbidden by law to use State assets to promote a particular candidate or issue. In addition, however, I urge positive action. I hope that faculty members will promote discussions among our students that illustrate shared human goals of peace, health, and prosperity for selves and loved ones. I wish that all employees will think again before labeling another as “less than,” just on the basis of one sliver of that person’s identity, for example, their preferred political candidates or particular views on some international controversy.

As a great university, we have unique opportunities to look at our nation and our world for both positive and negative models associated with reconciliation and the growth of shared purpose and equity. Too often, we simplify others into purely victims and absolute villains. Although both categories definitely exist in historical and current realities, most situations are not binary. Like troubled relationships at personal and international levels, objective assessments show complex webs of shared blame, praiseworthy actions, and common failures to compromise or communicate honestly. 

It’s especially important as we teach our diverse student body that we are cognizant of each student’s personal and family experiences. Silencing students because they are from a minority religion or political party is not what great professors do. One of our core values is, Diversity is our Strength

Election season may be a particularly good time to remind each other about that value. It may be a time to cast a skeptical eye to those political movements here and abroad that demonize others rather than create solid plans for the welfare and rights of people and nations to exist in peace. 

The great privilege enjoyed at U.S. universities, in contrast to many other national universities, is that we can speak freely on a vast array of subjects.  That freedom comes with awesome responsibilities associated with gathering evidence and respecting the same right in others. The search for “power over” is not virtuous. The search for “community with” is.


Jane Close Conoley, PhD
California State University, Long Beach