Writing about World Music

Section X, Fall 2016

An Open Letter to My Students

I’ve been wondering since Tuesday night how to broach the topic of the presidential election with you all. It’s a hard thing to consider, not least because the fact that I feel the need to say anything at all could be interpreted as inappropriate partisanship.

But nonetheless, I feel that I must say something, and I hope you’ll bear with me here. I’ve been trying to find a way to understand the outcome of the election as anything other than a rubber-stamping of hatred: of people of color, of women, of non-Christians, of immigrants. But at the moment, all I can see is a slew of vile, hateful assaults, physical and verbal, on the people for whom our president-elect has shown such contempt throughout the past several months of campaigning. I see all the reports of men harassing women; of African Americans being told to go back to Africa; of Latino schoolchildren being told by classmates that they’re going to be shipped off to Mexico; of people threatened with guns and sexual violence. And we see all of these attacks being perpetrated explicitly in Trump’s name.

(Also, there’s the case of Texas State University, which hits close to home for me and my academic colleagues: flyers have appeared on their campus suggesting that it’s time to “go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage”—again, explicitly in Trump’s name.)

This is unique in my lifetime. I’m not claiming any “listen to your elders” cred here—only that I remember the 2000 election (the last time the winner of the popular vote lost the presidency), and I remember how contentious was the political discourse and maneuvering in that year. And I remember that no matter how heated those political debates got, they rarely challenged the basic right to exist and to be part of the American project that is cherished by so many of the people who have been assailed by Trump supporters in the last couple days. What we are seeing now—and have seen this whole year—is in an entirely different realm than anything we’ve seen in recent American history. (People plenty older and wiser than myself have said that they haven’t seen anything like this in their lifetimes, either.)

So, like many of my colleagues at Davidson College, I’ve been struggling with how to handle this in my classes. Ignoring it is not an option, because it effects all of us. I know very little about what you all must be going through in your day-to-day lives with your classmates, but I imagine that, like elsewhere in the country, the divisions between those on the left and those on the right, the Clinton supporters and the Trump supporters, is stark and entrenched at Davidson, and that it is rarely breached. I have heard from people that they are frustrated by the seeming impossibility of constructive discourse with classmates. This is true of people on both sides of the political divide.

Beyond the frightening emboldening of overt displays of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, this impossibility of discourse is what I find most troubling about this election and the months leading up to it. It is opposed to everything that I personally and professionally value: constructive argument, critical thought, the capacity for self-reflection. These values are broadly shared by my colleagues at Davidson and across the country. These are the values of the academic project as we know it. These are values that I have hoped you would take away from our writing course. These are not partisan values—although they have been sabotaged by partisan politics.

And then there’s the value of listening to people—the heart and soul of the ethnographic research you are doing now, and of what all ethnographers do. Our work is fundamentally about empathy—about being able to understand how another human being is feeling. When we, as a campus community, had a meeting at the flagpole last month and a march through town in support of Davidson’s students of color, I was (and am) dismayed at the perception that this is a “liberal” show by the college. It was not. This was a show of empathy for people who are telling the rest of us that they are afraid, that they are suffering, that they feel vulnerable and at risk. To listen to someone say “This is how I feel” and to respond, “No you don’t”—that’s pathological. If people in our community are feeling vulnerable, they need to be supported by us in the community. That’s not a partisan value; that’s simple human empathy.

A friend expressed much better than I can what I am hoping you all will take from my meditation on current events:

I believe the people I know (and love) who supported Trump when they say that they don’t like parts of his campaign, but were persuaded by others – so in the midst of this time of divisiveness, when a lot of people feel like the country elected a person who is actively hostile to them on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, I’d ask the people who support some, but not all parts of Trump’s platform to rally against the things they find objectionable. This is the “coming together” that we need – a rejection of the scarier parts of the campaign, and a promise from people who voted for things other than the bigotry to help fight against it.

This “coming together” is meaningless if it is not deep, personally challenging, and crossing the boundaries that we often perceive to separate us so completely. If you support(ed) Trump because of economics or whatever else, then you have an obligation to stand against the hate that has so clearly resulted from his campaign, that may be making your classmates and friends fearful for their own lives, or the lives of others. If you opposed Trump, you also have an obligation—to be open to the perspectives of his supporters, to listen honestly and generously, just as you do in our classroom.

These are both challenging tasks. It’s far easier to self-righteously dismiss the perspectives of people we don’t agree with, and so much of the media we consume encourages us to do just that. But I know you’re better than the shallow “hot take” media culture that seems to engulf us; you prove that to me every day we discuss a challenging text or work shoulder to shoulder to make each other better writers and thinkers. This is why all of us are here—the belief that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, we are still a community, and we can still support each other, as a community, through our intellectual and emotional trials.

I am here to support you however I can.

2 Comments

  1. I come from a family of immigrants who worked their entire life to establish themselves in this country. This fact along with a couple other life circumstances lefts me devastated with the election of Trump. The fear and anger didn’t come from the election process or how people could vote for him, but rather the question of the unknown. I think that his entire campaign assumed the role of “He’s not ACTUALLY going to win” and this created a really dangerous post election atmosphere. Trump was allowed to say and do pretty much anything he wanted and no one really did anything to check him. He has made A LOT of promises that may or may not come true. This is where my fear comes from. I don’t know which of his promises will actually come through.

    This being said, I have done my research and seen his interview on 60 minutes. In this interview he seemed to provide a more comprehensive outlook on what the Trump presidency is going to be like. He was more reserved and seemed to be a bit more respectful. He said he’s not going to fully repeal Obamacare and he is going to work towards a more seamless exchange of power. This sounds a bit more presidential but I am far from convinced. I don’t believe that a man with the attitude and sentiment expressed in his campaign was doing it ALL for show. However, I do have faith in the people of this country. I have faith that even though all three branches of our government will be controlled by the same party, we will still have the values that we have seen in recent years. This country is ultimately a democracy and there are things that we can control.

  2. There is no way to defend Trump. I would never even want to try. I am shocked and appalled that the United States has elected a person who has said so many horrifying and hateful things. But should we be shocked? As a conservative I am used to hearing the others preach to me about open mindedness, but once they find out I am a conservative often being labelled as a racist, sexist, and an idiot for my views. Under these conditions it is impossible to have any discussion. As we saw this has pushed many people all the way over to an extreme.
    The reaction to this election at Davidson has been very frustrating to me. I know that the results from the election are frightening to many people and that I never have to experience the reasons for this. However, this is continuing to alienate many moderates and conservatives who are not racist or sexist who have been labelled as deplorables. How is this prejudice any better than Trump’s? What do you expect the opposing reaction to these comments and labels to be?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLG9g7BcjKs

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