Vilification of the opposition
Political labels generalize viewpoints, increase polarization
Aware of the new Democrats club at Park, senior Evan Kegans said he believes if a student were to start a Republicans club, they would be an automatic target for ridicule.
“It would slap the political label on someone so (people) would immediately be like ‘oh you’re conservative?’ and they’d bring up all these things like ‘are you guys supporting Trump?’” Kegans said.
Social studies teacher Scott Miller said political views are often generalized when, in reality, members of political parties may have beliefs that don’t fall in that label.
“(Political labeling) is making an assumption that if somebody is a member of one political party or another, they must follow all the beliefs of that party, when most people just have a few issues that are really important to them and they might float on the others,” Miller said.
According to sociologist professor at the University of Minnesota Joseph Gerteis, political labels can be dangerous because they automatically create —– sometimes false – perceptions of others.
“Political labels are important because they signal both how we think about ourselves and how we think about others. For that reason labels become almost like weapons,” Gerteis said.
Senior Aaron Stulberg said he notices people often struggle to differentiate the terms Republican and conservative.
“I feel like (Republicans and conservatives) get lumped together quite a bit. At least in my opinion they are two very different things,” Stulberg said. “I would say conservatives tend to be quite a bit more religious in their views where republicans, I would say, it’s politically. The religious stuff doesn’t bother them as much.”
According to Gerteis, in an increasingly polarized political climate, politicians try to “frame” their adversaries by associating them with negative concepts.
“In a political conversation, if you can frame your opponents in a certain way and make it stick, you’ve gained an advantage. So for example, you will often hear political actors trying to link labels like ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ to terms like ‘radical’ or ‘reckless’,” Gerteis said.
Gerteis said in the modern political climate, even subtle linguistic tools can be used to paint a negative picture of one’s opponent.
“You may have noticed that in recent years Republican members of Congress refer to their opponents as say ‘Democrat lawmakers’ instead of ‘democratic.’ That’s because the word ‘democratic’ has good connotations, and because the hard end of the word ‘Democrat’ sounds worse,” Gerteis said.
Kegans said because many current social movements have been linked to specific political parties, many lack the understanding that these movements can be supported by people of any party.
“I think a lot of movements now have turned into, even if they weren’t political at first, they have turned into a political movement. Black Lives Matter now is definitely associated with liberals,” Kegans said. “If you are a Conservative and you still agree with it, you say, ‘oh the movement’s great, I agree with it,’ some people who haven’t heard you say you agree with it will be like, ‘oh so you are against it. Are you racist?’”
Miller said because President Trump’s comments created heightened states of emotion, he may have aided in constructing a generalized view of his supporters.
“If someone is a Republican and in favor of Trump, automatically people assume that they must be racist, which is not always the case,” Miller said.
According to Stulberg, Republicans have been looked at much more negatively because Trump defines himself as a member of that party.
“I feel like people are a lot more harsh toward it because he is a so called Republican, but people don’t realize that is not how everyone is and that is an individual,” Stulberg said.
Kegans said he does not identify with a certain political group because he does not share identical beliefs with any label.
“I’ve kind of shifted into that independent (label) where I can’t really side with one because it’s kind of all one big label,” Kegans said. “If you’re liberal, you’re a pro-choice and you’re progressive and you want to push a lot of this stuff on me. With Republicans or Conservatives, they are either racist or they have these religious beliefs that are pushed into their belief.”
Stulberg said although he believes students have the right to share their political opinions, he notices faculty at Park persuading students into a certain political area.
“Students are allowed to say whatever they want in my opinion. You are here to learn. You are allowed to express your opinion,” Stulberg said. “It is a lot more faculty that will kind of coax you toward a certain way of thinking, which is not right because you are here to learn and they are here to teach, and they are not supposed to push their own political views on you.”
Junior Caroline Garland said she has heard Conservative classmates voicing problems stemming from the liberal climate.
“I talk to some people (who) have more conservative views, that they don’t really feel comfortable sharing those because they feel that the general community or the people around them are going to confront them on it,” Garland said.
Miller said people often quickly place others into political categories without attempting to actually hear their viewpoints.
“Instead of spending the time to really try to understand opposing points of view and the merits and maybe the negative aspects of it, what we want to do is just instantly put people in one category because it’s really easy for us then to argue against them,” Miller said.
Stulberg said he worries if students were to join a Republicans club at Park, they would be opening themselves to criticism.
“The only issue is people feel like they’ll probably get ridiculed if they do (make a Republicans club),” Stulberg said. “You know people who are in clubs and if you find out they’re in that club, well now you’ve basically broadcasted to the entire school, ‘here’s something that you’re allowed to pester me about because I’m in it.’”
Miller said he will often present a contradicting argument if his classes tend to lean further one way politically than another in hopes to open their minds.
“I think that’s the key, for people to listen to the other arguments, because you either come away stronger in your convictions or you have to rethink some of your assumptions,” Miller said.
Garland said she believes politically polarized environments can be problematic if they leave people feeling uncomfortable sharing their views.
“I do think it’s a problem because it’s important for everyone to be able to share their opinion and be able to feel like they’re still going to be in a safe environment even if they disagree with someone,” Garland said.