October 21, 2022

FRIEDMAN | Politics and Campus Culture: The Quiet Majority

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The media often thinks of our generation as a proponent of toxic social norms and combative behavior. However, my experience on campus has demonstrated the opposite. Exhibiting effective civil discourse, most students I interact with, across the political spectrum, are ambivalent or courteous about most issues and not receptive to toxic forms of online and offline cancel culture. Contrary to what cynics may say, the modern American college campus is a haven for discourse and bringing people together in a world where many previously-settled political realities are now up for debate. Real Cornell students ​​— the quiet majority, not the vocal minority — are much more pragmatic and cordial toward one another than stereotypes about college students allege. 

At the risk of sounding like a University spokesman, my personal Cornell experience has perfectly followed the democratic ideal: a diverse group of students forced into common dorm halls with nothing to do in the middle of nowhere, creating lifelong bonds that eclipse political, ethnic and religious affiliation.

As a freshman forced into North Campus, I did not start off with many involvements to fill my time. Before I found activities to focus on, floormates and I would banter late into the night. Unprintable topics and jokes were usually more popular talking points, but when those ran out, politics was not sacred ground. Libertarians, conservatives and left-wingers debated U.S. involvement in foreign wars and the effects of Mayor De Blasio’s policies, pandemic lockdowns and business closures on New York City.

Most of the core group hailed from all over the tri-state area. We were only missing Westchester, or we would have completed the Cornell holy trinity. While our group did skew tri-state heavy, we had additional friends and floormates from Illinois, Texas, Arizona and New Hampshire, among others.

Religions (including Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam), cultures and opinions were certainly well-represented and though political debates did attract tension from time to time, after all was said and done, we were all happy to raise a glass, screw off on weekends or take trips together. Our shared proximity into a forced living situation with no nearby urban area to escape to forced a group of disparate individuals to be lifelong friends.

To my eyes, the system worked as designed, bringing an eclectic young, passionate and impressionable group of individuals together and forging us into civil, decent adults under the common banner of Cornell. 

Yet, mainstream publications tend to follow the same flawed paradigms regarding campus issues or controversies. A generic right-wing argument is as follows: “students are not free to express their true opinions on college campuses.” A generic left-wing argument: “education and open-mindedness are liberal virtues, and immoral speakers have no place on our campus.”

At least at Cornell, both of these perspectives are not that relevant to the experiences of most students. The peers that I interact with, across the political spectrum and with a varying breakdown of identities and backgrounds, are more concerned with being normal college students than political actors in both an academic and social setting. Within a classroom setting, an academic and intellectual stance is taken on most issues, more aligned with a sophisticated conversation than a partisan talking point.

When political issues inevitably arise in casual conversation, even some of those that held doctrinaire opinions coming into their undergraduate career have refocused and adjusted as they have matured and attended lectures with professors challenging their opinions. Isn’t that the entire purpose of college?

Furthermore, “cancel culture” is at odds with normal social paradigms, and I do not think that Cornell students have much time or tolerance for it. I believe most students agree on clear, tangible and reasonable boundaries for behavior and act appropriately in social and academic settings. On a campus as insular as this one, with all freshmen living together and Greek Life a predominant social outlet, friendships and social connections are so intertwined that unless someone behaves completely inappropriately, not many tend to receive (nor should receive) social sanctions for expressing a particular political viewpoint.

Politics does have an important place on campus, as it is most definitely an important topic for the emerging professionals and citizens comprising the Cornell population. However, while our generation does seem more public about their political beliefs on social media, I believe that campus culture and life serve as two highly effective factors for finding commonality and relative harmony among Cornell students. Though some political issues will never be settled, one thing is clear. The quiet campus majority is interested in the same things: finishing assignments, going out on the weekend, making friends across the political aisle, or going on an occasional fishing expedition in the Instagram DMs or iMessage.

Aaron Friedman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Honest AF runs every other Thursday this semester.