On February 23, I attended the “Forum on Democracy” hosted by the College of International Studies. The event aimed to open up a dialogue on the present state of our democracy and possible threats to it– namely, our current President Donald Trump and his administration. While the planned panelists and their topics (titled “Checks and Balances: Robust or Fragile?”, “The Trump Presidency in Perspective: Autocrats and Populists in Latin America,” and “Corruption and Kleptocracy”) proved fascinating and worthwhile, it was the ten minutes of open-mike time before that shocked audience and panelists alike and ultimately painted a picture of true democracy in action.
Every University faculty member that I’ve experienced has taught or led free from bias. As proponents for free, independent thought, their political leanings must not play a part in educating students; however, their profession does not ban them from speaking out in other platforms, especially on issues as potent as those at the time of the panel (less than a month had passed since Trump’s controversial executive order and reactions to “fake news” flooded the media). It was clear by the very nature of the panel and its topics that those gathered to speak were concerned by, if not critical of, Trump’s actions. Throughout the opening remarks, though, they remained polite, restrained, and anything but accusatory– they even omitted the names of the leader(s) in question.
So it was a great shock when a graduate student from the audience took to the mic with a pre-written denunciation of the panel’s tone and intention. Professors scribbling down notes stilled their frantic movements and slouched undergrads titled their heads as the man in front labeled the event as “reactionary and leftist.” Rigid bias, and not a true concern for our democracy, fueled the CIS event, he claimed. He elaborated– “Why is this panel choosing to focus solely on the actions of our newly elected president without giving mention to candidate Hillary Clinton’s abuses of power?” “Trump’s recent actions remained within the legal framework and painting them as some threat to our constitutional democracy is reactionary and excessive.” He spoke for at least five minutes but his message was simple: what the College was doing here was neither open-minded nor out of any real urgency and he did not agree with its stance.
Here is my mental play-by-play from the sidelines: WOW this guy is bold. And NO I do not agree that Trump’s blatant disregard for facts shows no cause for concern. Neither do I see his travel ban, reeking of Islamophobia and big business, as “no big deal.” And I truly think that any gathering praising education, vigilance, and the sharing of ideas holds value for those willing to listen, regardless of its place on the political spectrum. Basically I did not share the same thoughts as our bold volunteer. Nevertheless, I was not angry at him for bringing up these points. His opposing opinions galvanized my own and made me grateful for the beautiful thing that is dissent. For dissent, although uncomfortable, lies at the foundation of the sacred concept that CIS sought to preserve through this event: democracy. The fact that this man could stand up in a room full of people that probably did not take his side and speak his mind just proves how special our nation is and how fiercely we should defend its principles. On a smaller scale, the confrontation filled me with pride at the openness and diversity of thought allowed at our school. And according to Provost Kyle Harper, democracy thrives on places of education such as the University of Oklahoma.