The Elephant in the Room: Close-mindedness in an Open Community

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The Elephant in the Room: Close-mindedness in an Open Community

By Sander Lutz & Aaron Newman

Graphic by Cassie Jeong

Of 290 students randomly polled in a recent Tam News survey, 84.6 percent of those who identified with a political party defined themselves as Democrats, while 7.4 percent classified themselves as Republicans.

This political imbalance, while skewed in comparison to the rest of the nation, should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Tam community. Located in Marin County, rated by the Cook Partisan Voting Index as the third most liberal county in the San Francisco Bay Area (which itself is widely considered one of the most left-leaning metropolitan areas in the nation) Tam has often received praise for its embracement of diversity and self-expression. But is such a one-sided community, even a progressive one, stifling other opinions on campus? Why is the Tam student body identifying so overwhelmingly as liberal, and what effect is this homogenous environment having on the school’s political community as a whole?

Students interviewed seemed to be aware of Tam’s slanted political spectrum, and many commented on the Democratic majority on campus and the resulting Republican minority. “At Tam, I only know one person who claims to be Republican,” sophomore Paloma Tenorio said.

In the 2008 election, Marin voted 78 percent in favor of Democrat Barack Obama. Although 54.8 percent of students associated with the Democratic Party, 73.4 percent of those surveyed said that they supported Obama in the 2012 race.

“Maybe the only time [students] really engage in the political process is during presidential elections, so it’s really not the party they’re voting for, but the candidate they’re voting for,” Professor Robert Elias said. Elias, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco and father of Tam News reporter Maddie Elias, commented on the roots of teenagers’ political views.

“Political scientists call it ‘political socialization;’ [political ideas are formed by] the kinds of things that we’re exposed to, particularly when we’re young, prior to maturity, when we are quite vulnerable to impressions, because we don’t have the skills or the development to form [our own opinions] at all,” he said. “So the things that we’re exposed to, in a sense, make up our minds. What are [these factors]? Family [is] very important.”

Tam government teacher Luc Chamberlin agreed that family, parents in particular, were a primary source of many students’ political convictions.

“Basically, kids get most of their political views from their parents,” he said. “They may not think that, but that’s pretty much the way that turns out. Around here, most people are liberal, so most kids are liberal.”

Chamberlin’s assertion was supported by numerous student responses. “I was raised by my mom, who was liberally biased, therefore I somewhat inherited that,” senior James Josephson said.

“It sounds bad, but I don’t really know the details of the Democratic Party, I just know in my family, the Democratic Party is known to be the good party, I guess,” freshman Sammy Lebuhn said.

Of students surveyed, 76.6 percent said that one or more of their parents associated themselves with the Democratic Party. Of those students, 53.6 percent said that they rarely, if ever, disagreed with their parents politically.

Dr. Matt Spalding, a Mill Valley psychologist specializing in adolescent and family issues, thought that overall political tendencies, not just stances on issues, may also be rooted in family. “If we grew up in a household that was very authoritative in terms of power, more hierarchal, with more of that stance that power stays up top with the parents… this kind of upbringing, I’ve heard, tends towards an emotional preference for Republican or for conservative values,” he said. “I’ve also heard that more liberally allocated power in households, where [the family has] a democratic process from the start… we tend to have to have an emotional wiring towards more liberal [values].”

Spalding said that most families he had worked with were looser in structure. “I don’t know if that’s Marin in particular. Maybe it’s just generational these days, but here, for sure [parents tend] more towards the liberal parenting style.”

While parents may influence many students’ political predispositions, there are other ways for students to form their own opinions. Senior Jake Davis, who defined himself as a fiscal conservative, said that investigation was the basis of his political views. “Nobody really supports what I say, so I have to do a lot of research to back up my statements,” he said.

Junior Max Gamboa believed that Davis’ method of forming political opinions – namely, self-directed research – was not uncommon among Tam students and that for the most part, the student body was politically educated. “I’m sure [that] a good percentage of [students] look at different news sources and things from their parents or from their teachers,” he said.

Chamberlin held a different view. “Most high school students are not terribly well informed politically, they don’t keep up on the news regularly, they’re not interested in what’s going on in our government, so overall [their] level [of political knowledge] is relatively low,” he said. “They’re young; they have other things to do.”

But even if students have other things to do, politics are part of Tam’s curriculum. All Tam seniors are enrolled in a government class during their fall semester, and government teacher Matt Tierney believes that this obligatory class has the potential to increase his students’ political awareness. “Do I expect my students to be able to become informed voters after they take government class?” he said. “I think that’s asking a lot. Can a government class help build [political consciousness]? Sure.”

Despite the encouragement of Tam’s social studies teachers, students did not, for the most part, cite news sources as the main basis for their political views; of those surveyed, 28.7 percent did not cite any source of online, print, or television news that they consumed. Of those who did list sources, many were opinion-based. 25 percent of students who listed online news outlets only cited subjective sources such as Yahoo News or Reddit.com. Nevertheless, 64.8 percent of students aligned with a political party, and over 80 percent said that they supported a presidential candidate.

Some students observed this contrast between political awareness and partisan activism. “Sometimes I will see people that support the Democratic Party fully and yet would disagree with certain [stances] that it has,” said Josephson. “Certainly sometimes people don’t realize that their opinions contrast with those of the party they support.”

But even if students have unwittingly allied with some stances of the party they’ve chosen, most interviewed were familiar with both parties’ positions on large social issues. “Really, the only thing I know about the election basically is that Romney wants to take away birth control and abortions,” senior Laura Hull said.

“I’m for gay rights, and the Republican Party is not. [I also support the Democrats’ stance on] abortion,” Tenorio said.

With such a unified front in favor of the more liberal positions on these social issues, students may not see a need to do their own research and make up their own minds rather than follow the crowd. “[Students will] take people at their word,” Davis said. “[This atmosphere] gives them a soundness of mind that they are correct because look, everyone around them supports [what they do], so that must be the right decision.”

“It’s hard to step back and think, ‘well, do I think abortion should be allowed?’ because in the back of your head you’re going, ‘well my parents think that [it should be] and my friends think that, and if I disagree, they’re not going to like me as much,’” senior Jake Zwiebach said.

Spalding believed that a desire to conform, rather than a fear of consequence, was the primary influence behind students agreeing with their peers. “I don’t know if there’s a feeling there’s going to be punishment [for dissent], I don’t think it’s that overt, but I think there’s a sense of wanting to be in the pack a bit, and if not, there might be societal repercussions.”

“There can be that peer pressure idea of conforming, and we have it here,” said Chamberlin.

In such a one-sided political community, one would wonder whether or not students are open to other political opinions and theories.

Tenorio held that Tam was an accepting community of different political beliefs. “Right here at Tam you can believe whatever you want… no one really discusses [politics]; it depends on where you are and who you’re interacting with, but I think that for the most part if you firmly believe something you [can] continue believing it freely,” she said.

Of surveyed students, only 12 percent felt that they were not very, or not all comfortable sharing their political beliefs and opinions. However, among students that identified as Republicans, that statistic jumped to 35.7 percent.

Davis, himself a Republican, reflected this trend in discussion of the treatment of his dissenting viewpoints. “I’ve made this joke with some people,” said Davis. “So, [Tam has an annual] ‘Day of Silence’ for kids who are gay that can’t speak out… I think we should have Day of Silence for Republicans. I think Republicans get more hassle at this school than gay people; I’ve never heard anyone talk badly about gay people, but Republicans? Holy s—.”

In Chamberlain’s class, students did an activity in which they were asked to line up in a political spectrum. Most students stood far to the left, and very few stood to the right. “I had maybe two students who were willing to identify themselves as conservatives on one issue or another, and they felt isolated,” Chamberlain said.

Students noticed the divide as well. “There was one person who was completely against everyone else [in the class], and she seemed a little ostracized for a while,” said senior Tassia Huq, a participant in the activity.

Chamberlin felt this alienation was more a product of the high school setting than anything else. “Because everyone was over [on the liberal side] and because school is not just an academic environment but also a social one, it’s hard for anyone to stand out,” he said.

Tierney agreed. “I would say that if you are the minority in a group, it is hard to vocalize your opinion, and it would be that way in any grouping of any question in society,” he said. “It’s human nature to not want to bring up… If you were to say something about how abortion is wrong in a classroom that would take some guts, because you’re going to get a lot of students who are going to disagree with that point of view. It’s a totally valid point of view, but you’re going to feel pressure.”

“I feel like if I were to say anything supporting Mitt Romney, it’d be twenty-nine-versus-one, and I don’t want to do that,” Davis said.

“I think one of the basic human fears… is alienation, the sense of being ‘other,’” said Spalding. “On a societal level, I think [standing out] is terrifying, especially in our adolescent years when there’s a tremendous – and very healthy, I think – desire to want to bond, to ‘be part of,’ and it’s also and individuation time. It’s a tricky balance in our teen years, of wanting to stand apart and be celebrated for our uniqueness, but in such a way that we’re still part of the pack.”

The same atmosphere that has discouraged some minority views from being voiced may have an impact on the frequency, honesty, and productivity of political dialogue among students at Tam.

“If a Republican comes into our area and says they don’t think gay people should be married, I don’t think that we’re very accepting of them,” said Zwiebach. “We harass them, we say, ‘you’re stupid, you’re barbaric, your opinions are wrong;’ they don’t even [have] a chance to try to voice their opinion, or sway your opinion.”

“I don’t think there are that many conversations about people explaining or debating different political beliefs [at Tam],” said Gamboa. “Outside of the classroom, I think the students are open to sharing their political opinions but the vast majority support Barack Obama, so if [somebody’s] friends like Barack Obama, [then that person will be] like, ‘oh, I like Barack Obama too.’”

“I recently talked with someone who moved here who was pro-life, [and] had an interesting conversation with them,” said Josephson. “I disagreed on a very fundamental level with the ideas they expressed, [but it was] just interesting to be able to have that conversation with someone, which I find somewhat of a rarity.”

“I don’t think that it’s that [politics] are not discussed, it’s just that everybody agrees already that the other side is wrong,” said Tierney. “That is very strong here.”

Elias commented on the impact of a majority viewpoint on political discourse. “[If there is a political consensus in a community] you limit whether you even have a discussion, because there doesn’t seem to be another point of view,” he said. “Certain communities… may have little or no discussions of the other point of view… Mill Valley may be an example of that. […] Do you [need to have] a range of views that are actually being discussed? I think that’s healthy for society.”

I feel like if I were to say anything supporting Mitt Romney, it’d be twenty-nine-versus-one, and I don’t want to do that.

Spalding also thought such discussion was valuable. “The more articulation publicly [in a debate], the more the conversation gets [better], the more detail comes to light. It’s just a shame if the majority opinion tends to dampen public discourse.”

“If you don’t get off into another experience and you just stay in your little ‘cocoon,’ you’re probably not going to be exposed to other perspectives that challenge the way in which you’ve been socialized,” Elias said. “If I’ve got a group of people [when teaching], and I know where they’re coming from, I just hammer them with other perspectives. It tests your views, it makes you figure out why you hold those views, rather than it just being automatic because it’s seeped into you somewhere along the line when you were growing up.”

The bottom line is whether political activism, even lacking critical thought and research, is better than no political activism at all.

“I would say it’s always good to be involved,” said Chamberlin. “Just don’t be the eight-year-old kid holding the sign out with your parents on the side of the road on voting day, because you don’t know what you’re talking about.”