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The great divide

In June 2016, Jackie Dishner (’17) turned 18. For many cultures, an 18th birthday marks the graduation to adult- hood, perhaps signified best by an obligation to register for the draft; but also the privilege to cast a vote for the next president of the U.S.

As the summer months turned into the election season and email scandals competed with questionable tax re- turns, Dishner struggled to find inspiration in either major presidential candidate.

Come November when Dishner cast her first vote, it was for neither Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

When Dishner made her decision public, her peers made their descent known. “I actually felt a little bit attacked when I was talking about [my decision], because eventually I did tell people, but everyone was ‘like oh my god why would you [not vote for her]’,” she said. The surprising backlash Dishner felt came as a consequence of not sup- porting Hillary Clinton.

The Demographics

The reactions Dishner experienced are symptomatic of what Jon Sullivan (’19) believes is a much larger issue within the High School. “In our school there [are] lots of very diverse backgrounds, but it almost seems like at times, the political background can be less diverse,” he said.

While Social Studies teacher Mike McGow- an believes some classes he teaches are well versed in a range of political viewpoints, he generally has observed a distinctive political makeup amongst the student body. “I think by and large ASL students are quite liberal on social and cultural issues, certainly within the American political context it would be on the left,” he said.

However, McGowan has noted that amongst upper classmen the spectrum of beliefs tends to be wider. “I feel like when you start to dig deep into the beliefs of a lot of juniors and seniors at least, they are not quite as liberal on economic issues as they might initially think,” McGowan said.

The tone of conversations centering around current events and politics often re ects the predominantly liberal political demographics of the school that both McGowan and Sullivan identi ed. “I can think of times when I felt the classroom really leaned towards one direction and almost felt exclusive of other ideas,” Sul- livan said.

How best to moderate conversations of a po- litical nature is something that McGowan con- sistently grapples with, especially in light of concerns such as those raised by Sullivan and Dishner. “I feel like in the last year I have found myself questioning myself more about what events I choose as current events and whether the choice of those events actually is construed

as a political choice,” he said. “I don’t want to shy away from political events or developments that can be perceived as political in nature, but I think I try to at least question myself a little bit more for why I am choosing certain events or developments.”

Like Dishner, Sullivan is among a political minority of students that struggle to have their ideas heard as they do not fully align with the liberal status quo of the High School. “Person- ally I do feel comfortable expressing my own ideas, but I think that other people, who have ideas that are more right leaning, I don’t think that they feel as comfortable in this environ- ment,” he said.

The environment Sullivan describes is not necessarily hostile towards opposing political beliefs, but rather unaccepting. “There [are] definitely instances of more closed mindedness, where people will generalize about more conservative ideas, as opposed to looking at different facts and looking at a wide range of opinions,” he said.

To combat the sometimes monotonous nature of political discussion in class, McGowan occasionally advocates for the underrepresent- ed political opinions and contradicting argument. “There have been situations where I feel like in order to try to present other sides of an argument when I am lacking students who are willing to express other sides, I, as the teacher, have to kind of become the devil’s advocate,” he said.

Brian Robert (’17) identifies fiscally conservative, but his social beliefs, which he describes as more liberal, means he swings be- tween Republican and Democratic principles.

Despite his hybrid political beliefs, Robert often finds his peers assume all of his beliefs are conservative. “People assume I am super Re- publican with most things just because some of my views are slightly more conservative, which is just not true,” he said.

Robert also feels the stigma attached to be- ing Republican in the High School is particu- larly negative. “You can automatically be as- sociated with being a racist or a homophobe or a xenophile. It’s just not true, but that’s the stigma that has been portrayed within ASL and through media,” he said.

Sentiments like these thwart Robert’s enthusiasm to participate in political discussion. “I honestly don’t always get involved in political conversations just because of the fact that if I say something from my view point that is right of center, people just get really defensive about it and they say like, ‘how can you think that, that’s just absurd.’ I think, if I am respect- ing someone’s left of center views then they should also be respecting someone’s right of center views,” he said.

Since the election, McGowan has observed similar trends in his classroom. “I have seen in class this year there are students, who, for example, might support some of President [Donald] Trump’s policies, but who are very reticent to express their genuine feelings in class,” he said. “Some students this year, and I don’t think I have seen this in the other two years I have been here, were visibly uncomfortable or annoyed anytime political events are discussed in class.”

The rise in hostility toward conservative be- liefs that students like Robert and Dishner have experienced since the election mirror develop- ments in the U.S. In late January riots shook The University of California Berkeley when Republicans on campus invited Breitbart Edi- tor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. Similar chaos engulfed Middlebury College in early March when Charles Murray, a conservative political scientist, came to speak. The developments taking place on university campuses in the U.S. and even ASL might pose serious implications to the future of free speech if dissenting views.

Institutional Bias 

Standing in opposition to the Faculty protest of President Donald Trump’s Executive Order restricting immigration into the U.S. from seven countries, Sullivan wore a piece of tape emblazoned with #BuildTheWall, a reference to Trump’s proposal to build a wall across the southern border of the U.S.

In what Sullivan described as a “social ex- periment not necessarily representative of his political views,” some of the reactions he received reinforced his fear of an established anti-conservative bias within the High School.

Without any prompt or inquiry into the intentions of Sullivan’s demonstration, fellow students, some unknown to him, assumed Sullivan a racist. In one instance, Sullivan claims as he settled into a class a peer shouted across the room, “How could you wear that? What you’re doing is offensive,” before pro- viding Sullivan the opportunity to explain his position.

Sullivan acknowledges his demonstration was in ammatory, but is disturbed by the dearth of acceptance for alternative political views.

McGowan, who did not participate in the protest in order to avoid “imposing my own views on my students,” wonders if some stu- dents were not deterred from sharing their true opinions on the matter in light of the school structured stance against the ban. “The prevailing reaction to [the immigration ban] was widespread condemnation,” he said. “I wondered, are there students here who actually might support that and would they feel comfortable speaking out in class? Or might they fear that they would be labeled as bigot or a fascist or, you know, some other derogatory label.”

Head of Math Department Neil Basu, who co-organized the protest, maintains that the demonstration was a response to what he viewed as an infringement of human rights. “For me, the most important thing is for peo- ple to understand the idea of it not being po- litical, but it being about human rights,” Basu said in an article published on standard.asl. org on January 31.

While Sullivan is grateful he attends a school where many teachers openly share their political opinions, he questions the mes- sage such an organized protest sends to the student body. “It’s OK if 95 percent of teach- ers lean towards one side of the political spec- trum, but when the administration and most teachers get involved it’s like saying this ideas it the acceptable idea and that other ideas are not,” he said.

Sullivan, Dishner and Robert don’t ex- pect, nor do they yearn, for the High School to reach a utopian homeostatic political bal- ance. There is a question, however, of how the recent election has in uenced the way politics are discussed in the school. “I think there’s probably a disconnect in that a lot of people in the school dismiss the ideas by a lot of [Repub- licans] by just saying ‘conservatives are wrong’ as opposed to saying, ‘well, maybe they have something to say, they are right about some things, maybe they have a a point’,” Sullivan said.

Written by Tyler Skow

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