A recent Gallup poll reports that most Americans don’t trust government. Only 19 percent, in fact, say government can be trusted most of the time — a statistic that was 73 percent in 1960. And, when looking at the savagely partisan divide that has so torn Washington ever more apart, it seems hard to believe that our younger generation will be any less pessimistic.
Indeed, Americans don’t seem to trust each other terribly much either. Only one-third of them believe most people can be trusted, according to yet another recent poll.
When it comes to the most pressing issue facing millennials today, we can argue endlessly over pensions, budgets, war and welfare, but this crisis in trust — of leadership, of each other — is a disturbing trend that underlies every other. And it is a trend that our generation is perpetuating.
For a generation that prides itself on being more compassionate, more tolerant, more progressive and socially connected, we are exceptionally adept at isolating those with whom we disagree. Social media has made it easier and easier to find and surround ourselves with people who share the same opinions, views and core beliefs. In effect, we so often segregate ourselves from other viewpoints that we create echo chambers of ever-radicalizing beliefs.
We so despise national politics for this very reason, and yet we do it so very well ourselves. Through our choice of friends, social groups, news media and academic majors, the sheer efficiency with which our specific viewpoints are catered to is as remarkable as it is troubling. There is perhaps no better example of this phenomenon than within the microcosm of our university.
The birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, UC Berkeley seems to have taken a sharp turn in the opposite direction. Walk down our famed thoroughfare of Sproul Plaza, and you will see the most segregated place on campus, as groups representing every conceivable combination and permutation of identities exist, ever classifying and stratifying the student body to the point of obsession. Students come and go through this university year after year, many joining their one respective group, surrounded all four years by the people who are in nearly all ways similar to themselves.
Look at our celebrated student government, and more often than not you will find bills condemning specific groups on campus — authored without any attempt at prior dialogue. And, while the student government labors under the pretense of hearing out both sides, very often a guilty verdict is passed long before any real dialogue can occur.
Many groups on campus who espouse conflicting views are unfortunately not in contact as they fruitlessly shout past one another. Meanwhile, in the absence of dialogue, emotions build and build and get discharged only in explosive displays, such as last year’s divestment bill.
This hyperinsulation on campus, through which we self-isolate ourselves by culture, race and political ideology, brings with it a strong and constant temptation to never bother associating with the other side. And, as we see daily in Washington, echo chambers make it easy to demonize — the faceless enemy is so much easier despise.
Millennials are faced with an increasingly divided political world. It is a world that criminalizes pragmatism, poisons debate and weakens democracy. The other side is no longer “wrong” or “naive” or “irrational” but is now “hateful,” “evil” and “racist.” Opposing arguments are no longer refuted in political debate, but now opponents are discredited with monikers, slogans and memes. Some call us the “ME Generation,” and this seems quite dreadfully accurate, for we are today so arrogantly sure in our convictions and certain of our moral superiority that we will not deign to dirty ourselves by hearing out the other side.
This is the problem facing our generation. This is the problem facing this university and nation. Without respectful dialogue, without actively seeking out people with whom we do not agree and welcoming challenges to our beliefs, our convictions, however noble, will be weak and foundationless. If we refuse to understand the other side and instead consign them to caricature and contempt, we reject the very beauty of free speech.
I would be remiss not to concede that there do exist a small handful of organizations on campus that attempt to address this growing division and promote working together — the Berkeley Forum and California Common Sense Action come to mind — but by and large, we here at UC Berkeley are obsessive dividers. And, as this silencing of voices remains rampant on our campus, we unfortunately continue to imitate the divisive Washington example.
Brendan Pinder is the president of Berkeley College Republicans.