Exploring conflict and consensus in political life

by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

A news clip from late August filled the screen in a Wallace Hall classroom, where Amin Ghaziani’s freshman seminar was meeting. Fifteen students watched closely as a news anchor recounted a dispute between two Democratic delegates at their convention. An African American delegate from Illinois reportedly accused an African American woman of being an “Uncle Tom” for supporting Hillary Clinton instead of Barack Obama.

Amin Ghaziani (right), a lecturer in sociology and a fellow in...
Amin Ghaziani (right), a lecturer in sociology and a fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, is leading lively discussions about how community boundaries are negotiated within political movements in the freshman seminar “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?: Unity and Division in Political Life.” (photo: John Jameson)

The incident brought together many of the elements students are examining in “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?: Unity and Division in Political Life.” Led by Ghaziani, a lecturer in sociology and a fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, the seminar explores how community boundaries are politically and culturally negotiated in political movements. The class studies the civil rights and lesbian/gay movements, but in the heat of one of the most intense presidential elections in decades, it also encompasses discussion of the current political climate.

When the students discussed the clash between the Democratic delegates, they drilled down to some of the causes of divisions within the party.

“They got distracted from the main issue,” said Tevia Pollard. “Instead of focusing on platforms, they focused on their personalities.”

“Organizationally it was flawed,” said Jonathan Evans, referring to the structure of the long primary season. “Ideally it should have been over by Super Tuesday. It splintered the party to have the primary go on for so long.”

“Do you think the political climate was conducive to political splintering in the Democratic party?” asked Rosemary Raymond-Sidel.

“There were two equally strong factions — for Hillary and Obama — in the movement,” Evans said later. “If there are too many strong parties, it’s conducive to splintering.”

The class poses some tough questions to the students: Is unity through diversity possible? Is infighting the death knell of unity? To find answers, the students are reading “Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco: 1950-1994” by Elizabeth Armstrong and “Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970” by Doug McAdam, as well as viewing documentaries on the gay rights and civil rights movements. They also are reading speeches by Obama, numerous essays that tackle subjects such as bisexuality and a purported “class war” in black America, and recent newspaper stories about the use of the word “queer” and comparisons of the civil rights struggle with the fight for gay marriage.

To make students comfortable discussing such sensitive topics, Ghaziani had students read and comment on statements he distributed about race, sex and politics on the first day of class. “I wanted it to be OK for people to articulate their views on controversial topics, to diffuse people’s sensitivity,” he said.

It seems to have worked. “We got over that awkwardness on the first day,” said Angelina Caruso. “The class has black and white students, gay and straight students. It wouldn’t be as rich an experience if we had a homogeneous class.”

“The students bring lots of enthusiasm and engagement to the class, and that creates lively discussion,” Ghaziani said. “We have yet to have a staid conversation.”

“I like the discussion, and I like that we all get a chance to speak,” said Alison Thurston. “It’s engrossing.”

“The idea of a freshman seminar is to get to know people in a more intimate setting,” said Mark Tanner. “Everyone brings something different to the class.”

For their midterm assignment, the students investigated a campus political organization of their choosing and wrote an essay about how unity is achieved in that group, applying what they’ve learned about cultural politics and inclusion to real-world situations.

The material they are reading and discussing “is not just theory,” noted Caruso. “The class turns it into something tangible, because social movements are happening right now.”