What’s at Stake in These Polarized Times

Students, faculty, and staff gathered in person and online to explore how the often binary conversations around current events inform our understanding of democracy, the elements that prevent us from coming together for civil discourse, and where we go from here.    

February 21, 2024

On February 15, a standing-room-only crowd of students, faculty, and staff gathered in Pulitzer Hall for a panel discussion on civil dialogue. The event was co-hosted by University Life and Columbia Journalism School, as part of the Dialogue Across Difference initiative, to explore how the often binary conversations around current events inform our understanding of democracy, the elements that prevent us from coming together for civil discourse, and where we go from here. 

The panelists included four Columbia faculty members—Courtney D, Cogburn, Jelani Cobb, Mae Ngai, and Bruce Usher—and PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman. The discussion was moderated by Maria Hinojosa, the founder of Futuro Media.

Interim Provost Dennis Mitchell welcomed guests in the audience, which included Columbia President Minouche Shafik and Barnard President Laura Rosenbury, and introduced the panelists. He explained that this event was a component of President Shafik’s Values in Action initiative, which is “designed to foster a resilient and inclusive community of learners and to engage with diverse perspectives and navigate challenging conversations.”

The ensuing conversation covered polarization, misinformation, history, democracy, fear, and critical thinking, and was followed by questions from the audience.

Watch the full video or read an excerpt below.

Jelani Cobb, the dean of the Journalism School and Henry R. Luce Professor of Journalism, opened the discussion by pointing out that the phenomena we’re seeing in society is idiosyncratic “but it is not novel.”  It dates back centuries, “and as we’re looking at the polarization that we're operating in, we should be informed about the forces that drove polarization in earlier times as well.”

Mae Ngai, Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and professor of history, continued on this historical angle to talk about 1994 when Newt Gingrich, as speaker of the House, put the U.S. “on this trajectory of polarization in our modern times. Gingrich had a strategy of zero-sum politics, no compromise, no concessions, confrontation only.” As a result, she noted that “deeply unpopular measures have been enacted in this country. And it looks like polarization, but actually, I think, it’s an attack on democracy.” 

Moreover, Ngai said, “dialogue is important. But in order to have dialogue, you have to have a democratic structure. Dialogue depends on democracy.” 

“It looks like polarization, but actually, I think, it’s an attack on democracy ... Dialogue depends on democracy.”

Mae Ngai, Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and professor of history

Courtney Cogburn, associate professor of social work at the School of Social Work, asked the audience to think about “who benefits from creating a discourse that’s so divided,” and said, “I don’t think we disagree as much as we think we do. We’re claiming the sides and we’re battling, but I think there’s a lot of shared ground.”

The key, Cogburn said, is “conversation, staying critical, sharing information, dealing in facts ... there’s something that’s lost when we are stuck in a place of yelling, as opposed to considering everything we’re talking about.... Some of it’s very simple, but some of it’s very complicated. That requires thoughts and consideration and different points of view and different sources of knowledge.”

Bruce Usher, professor of professional practice at Columbia Business School, spoke about a course he teaches with Ray Horton called “Bridging the American Divide.” The course came about in 2017, in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election as a way to understand what was going on across the country. The course covers a number of topics, including immigration, globalization, and the media, and spends four days visiting a “divided city” in the U.S., such as Youngstown, Ohio, or Decatur, Alabama. The objective of these visits is “not to change anybody’s mind” but to listen and to see “what happens when you sit down and you talk to someone face-to-face.” He pointed out that in 2020, during COVID when everything was online, and there was no in-person contact, “the class was a disaster” because you “cannot have these conversations online.”

For Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, the polarization is playing out “in the dampening of curiosity across political lines.” He said that when he was in “college 20 years ago, you could meet a person, you didn’t know anything about them,” and you could be “curious about their lives and how they came to their positions,” but now there’s social media “where you can quickly see what the person has posted before you decide if they’re worth talking to.” Or worse, there’s no talking, just interacting through social media that “encourages you to yell at people in short, snappy bursts,” which “pollutes whatever might have existed in terms of the ability to be curious.”

A panel discussion on democracy and polarizations co-hosted by University Life and Columbia Journalism School, as part of the Dialogue Across Difference Initiative.

As a University, Ngai said, “we uphold the values of teaching people how to think, not what to think, helping students discover the many complex ideas to every issue, creating an environment where people feel challenged, and learn to navigate the discomfort that comes with it.” But sadly, she said “we haven’t lived up to those values recently…. If we really want to have dialogue, we have to have a situation where everybody can have freedom of speech, that we uphold academic discourse, we don’t punish students or faculty for speaking things that some people feel are unpopular…. We have to go back and look at the values that we say we have, and think about how we can actually live up to them better.”

“I think fear is what gets in the way of aligning our actions and our values,” Cogburn said, “too often we’re making decisions based on fear…. I don’t pretend to understand the difficulties of leading institutions, be it a school or university and the kinds of things that have to be calculated and considered when making those decisions. But I do think it’s important to be transparent, as much as we can be, about what is informing the choices that we’re trying to make.”

Ngai said that “we’ve lost the idea that when you go to university, you’re supposed to be challenged.” She continued, “I personally did not like it when we, the professors, all had to give trigger warnings in our classes. I’ll just say that. You know, I don’t think anybody should say anything offensive. But if you can’t read about slavery without having a panic attack, you need help…. You have to deal with fear, but the way you deal with fear is you dig down deep, you have a robust conversation, nothing should be out of bounds … short of violence against each other.… I think that’s part of what’s so upsetting right now is that there’s this climate on campus, where you can’t talk … you can’t be supportive of Palestine without people accusing you of being antisemitic. We need to understand the history, what happened in the Middle East. It’s a long history. It goes way back before October 7, which was horrible, of course….  We need to teach that history, we need to learn it.”

Going to college, Ngai said, “is where you become an independent-minded person that can think for themselves, figure out problems for themselves, and back up your opinions with argument.”

Adding a footnote, given his position in the journalism space where beat reporters experience trauma on the job, Cobb added, “we can’t cushion nor should we cushion the uncomfortable realities of the world.” But “we should also be clear about providing people with the resources they need to navigate that emotionally. I think that there’s no shame in operating on both of those poles simultaneously.”

During the Q&A period, several students asked about the following issues:

Staying Safe and Being Challenged

Cobb warned against the “conflation of having your ideas challenged and feeling safe and unsafe.” He argued that one of the reasons why we have conflated these two things is because “we have taken to calling everything violence, that if someone disagrees with you, or someone criticizes an idea … this was violent. And if it's violent, then you would react in the way that most people react to violence, which is to feel unsafe.” But “that’s not violence,” he said, “there’s a distinction between something that’s violent, something that you just don’t like, and we should be mindful of that.”

The safe places to have these conversations, Usher said, “are in the classroom.” And if  your professors “are not having those conversations, you should ask them.”

Tools for Combating Misinformation 

“We have the tools and you have the tools. The tool is called critical thinking,” Ngai said. “And you apply that critical thinking to understanding through reading, through understanding context, because everything has a context … understand the history,” she said. “We have our Core Curriculum here at Columbia. Now I have my criticisms of the Core. I think it’s still too Eurocentric. But one of the good things about the Core is that students study debates that took place in different parts of the world in different time periods. They don’t just read an opinion. They read the debate over it.” As the Values in Action website says, “we don't tell you what to think, we tell you how to think, those are our tools. And as long as we are in an atmosphere where certain phrases or chants are considered out of bounds, we’re never going to get to that part of critical thinking … We should say, well, what do those phrases mean? What’s the history behind those phrases?”

The Power Imbalance in Dialogue

The famous scholar Noam Chomsky “says speaking truth to power is greatly overrated. The power is already aware of the truth. How else could they so effectively obscure it?” said Cobb. But “that obviates the idea that speaking truth to power is the only truth that you're speaking. Because what winds up really being powerful is speaking truth to your peers, the lateral relationships.” The true social reforms we’ve seen in the U.S., Cobb said, “involved, comparatively powerless people, who through a process that began with dialogue among themselves, forced people who in theory had infinitely more power than them to recognize their aims and ambitions.”

Getting People With Opposite Viewpoints to Talk  

“You have to try,” Ngai said, and if you can’t get someone to see your point of view or what you see as the truth, then “you have to educate everybody else,” and vote.

The Crisis of the University and Society, Particularly the Atmosphere at Columbia

“There are ways in which we’re acting in defense and out of fear and not really rooting ourselves in the function of a university,” said Cogburn, “the unique qualities of being in an academic institution and reimagining what these institutions should be and how they should be functioning in society.”

Concerns about why there is an increased NYPD presence on campus, disbanded student groups, and a closed campus are “important,” Ngai said. “I hope our leadership takes it really seriously.”

“We have to start our conversations with other people from a place of empathy,” said Friedman. And “professors and universities in general can really lean into a notion of open and respectful exchange, it’s not one or the other…. Once we start to give in on the idea of not protecting free speech to its fullest, you risk empowering all kinds of prohibitions … that’s a really dangerous place that we’re in.”

“I understand how that looks,” Cobb said about the closing of the campus on certain occasions. But “I will also say that we have been navigating circumstances in which there are very real dangers.” And “the unfortunate reality” of conflict “on the campus” is that “the most volatile elements are usually not associated with the campus. They are people who come from other places” who do not want “to further any kind of dialogue” and instead they intend to “sow chaos” and “trying to navigate the space in which you preserve your values, and you also navigate those kinds of complexities is important.”