Engagement’s Hard. We Still Need It.

“True diversity is diversity of thought, not di­versity of color. I don’t see color,” conser­vative political commentator Tomi Lahren argued during an interview with Trevor Noah in December 2016. Noah, the liberal host of The Daily Show, replied that “there is nothing wrong with seeing color; it’s how you treat color that’s more important.”

This exchange underscores the vast disagree­ment between the left and the right on what constitutes diversity and who embodies it. For instance, the Democratic Party Platform pro­claims: “Democrats are the party of inclusion… we respect differences of perspective and be­lief, and pledge to work together to move this country forward, even when we disagree.” Yet Republicans contend that Democrats be­tray this principle when they attempt to force bakers to prepare wedding cakes and govern­ment officials to officiate same-sex weddings despite their deeply held religious beliefs. This is part of a larger Republican assertion that Democrats do not believe in diversity of thought and are attempting to restrict free ex­pression and conservatism on university cam­puses and across the country.

Similarly, Democrats see Republicans’ attempts to exclude LGBT protections from anti-discrimi­nation laws and their rejection of the Black Lives Matter movement as flagrant limitations on di­versity. The sense on the left that the Republican Party has embraced racism and discrimination only increased after the presidential election, as Democrats—and many Republicans—be­lieve that President Donald Trump’s inflamma­tory comments on women and Mexicans are anathema to any idea of inclusion. But at the same time, conservatives regard Democratic characterizations of Trump supporters as rac­ists who belong in “the basket of deplorables,” in Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s memora­ble words, as hypocritically condemning an en­tire group for their voting decision.

Despite these points of contention, both sides seem to recognize their common goals and the importance of mutual respect. In her Daily Show interview, Lahren said: “I wish that we could disagree with each other without thinking that we are bad people or ill-inten­tioned folks.” A few days later, in a New York Times op-ed, Noah argued that “[w]e can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equal­ity while still breaking bread with the same rac­ist people who’ve oppressed us.” These talk-show hosts realize that disagreement should not preclude respect or cooperation.

They are not alone. Many people have called for more listening and understanding for those with different views following Trump’s unexpected win. Journalists, pundits, and politicians, who are often far removed from rural areas and do not have a good “feel for how the average per­son thinks and feels about politics and every­thing else,” as Washington Post commentator Chris Cillizza put it, have particularly promoted this attitude.

Unfortunately, it is unknown if these calls for more interparty and ideological engagement will succeed among the American people or in Washington. After all, resentment runs deep. Many Democrats are angry that Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes but still lost the election to a man they view as in­competent at best and dangerous at worst. Republicans, on the other hand, are furious over perceived Democratic efforts to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency and over a me­dia double standard which they allege applies only to Trump. Returning to the perennial exam­ple, is the baker who refuses to make a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony an anti-gay bigot who violates the rights of gays because of who they love? Or is the baker a devout Christian whose religious liberty is violated because he believes in the traditional definition of marriage?

In this scenario, who is right and who is wrong matters less than the fact that both sides pas­sionately and sincerely believe that their views are correct and that they hold the moral high ground on diversity, same-sex marriage/ LGBT rights, and a vast array of other issues. Whatever views you hold, the only way to con­vince others of your position is to engage with an open mind and an eagerness to understand the opposing stance.

Indeed, Lahren and Noah’s civil and meaningful conversation about important issues shows that this type of engagement is possible—and valu­able. Lahren and Noah are iconic firebrands on the right and left, respectively, and by appearing together, they gave many liberals and conserva­tives who rarely listen to views they find offen­sive the opportunity to hear the opposing side.

It is not easy to engage with people whose views we find abhorrent. But we must understand that both Democrats and Republicans are rightly up­set and work to grasp why. As Stephen Colbert said on Face the Nation, an “unquestioned belief… doesn’t serve you in any way.” Engagement al­lows us to question every tenet we hold dear. If we want to be confident in, strengthen, and, yes, sometimes revise our convictions—whatever they may be—then we must seek out those who will challenge them.

Eli Scher-Zagier

Eli Scher-Zagier '18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at eli.scher-zagier@wustl.edu.

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