My Fight Against Bureaucracy

When I first enrolled at USC, I was dismayed to find that the intellectual environment I sought was busy drowning in a flood of cheap champagne and boxed wine.  In response I wrought my Old Testament-style revenge in the form of an Op-Ed piece for the online student publication.  Here it is.

I came to USC in August 2013, a bright-eyed freshman eager to enjoy the merits of the premier “work hard, play hard” university in Southern California.  Through the first semester of my college experience, however, I have found a more accurate motto for many students: “work hard, play until you black out”.

In my first four months at the University of Southern California, there have been an average of four alcohol hospitalizations per weekend, one alcohol related death, and countless attempts by university staff to curtail the increase in binge drinking.  From restrictions on Greek Row to punishing individuals for underage drinking, USC officials have tried different ways to discourage unsafe drinking in the student population.

However, imposing sanctions on partying and punishing students is not enough.  Binge drinking will continue regardless of how many parties happen on one night, or how many students are placed on disciplinary probation.  What USC needs to do is change the culture on campus to one that doesn’t require drinking to have a good time.

This isn’t a new concept.  Many people have proposed similar ideas and the university has been working on ways to create this type of environment.

However, whatever changes they make are counter-productive when USC continues to promote itself as a party school.

The latest form of this is found in USC’s 2014 football slogan #TurnUpSC.  This mantra is featured on t-shirts, promotional videos, and the Galen Center marquee.  Urban Dictionary defines the phrase “Turn Up” as follows:

Verb:

1) Getting loose, being wild and potentially engaging in sexual activity with members of the opposite gender (or the same gender if thats what you’re in to)
2) Acting crazy due to consumption of large amounts of alcohol, marijuana, molly or other drugs

Wait, what?  So just to be clear, after a semester-long crackdown on alcohol consumption, USC is now adopting a slogan that encourages students to consume copious amounts of alcohol and drugs for the purpose of having fun?

Welcome to our school, the University of “Turn Up”.

How can university officials emphasize a change in college drinking culture while simultaneously promoting the activities they condemn?  Students won’t take attempts to curb drinking seriously as long as USC keeps perpetuating the idea that our institution supports irresponsible partying.

Honestly, I am embarrassed.  Students see #TurnUpSC on the t-shirts worn around campus; people driving down the 110 freeway see it on the Galen Center Marquee; alumni and prospective students see it in the 2014 football season videos promoted at football games and all over the internet.

The slogan creates problems beyond invalidating steps to make campus life safer; it broadcasts my university as a place that doesn’t take itself seriously.

Over the past few years, USC’s academic standing has been improving drastically and this is a major step back.  People shouldn’t be coming to USC to “turn up”, they should be pursuing a premier education.  We need to decide if we want to be a party school, or continue improving our reputation until we are a top university.

I’m not saying that people need to stop partying.  However, both students and university officials need to be more aware of how their actions reflect on the university.  Blacking out, hospitalizations, and “turning up”, shouldn’t be a part of USC’s identity.  People can continue to behave as they see fit, but not to the extent where alcohol consumption and drinking culture define the University of Southern California.  #TurnUpSC seems like the university’s way of condoning this behavior and deciding that we want others to know that we are a party school.

Perhaps I am being too critical.  Maybe it is just a coincidence that university officials chose “turn up” as the basis for the slogan.  Maybe they just know that “all of the kids are saying it” and are attempting to connect with current and prospective students.  However, every college student understands the colloquial meaning, and a mistake of this kind points to a larger problem of incompetence.

For my part, I am hopeful that USC will rectify this disconcerting error soon, force #TurnUpSC into an early retirement, and allow the university community to refocus on what’s important.  USC is making incredible strides in its march toward becoming a world-renowned, top-tier university.  Let’s not let the party school image of yesteryear hinder that admirable progress.

I sent my Op-Ed to the President of my university, hoping to create some change.  I had received positive feedback from large swaths of the student community, and vitriol from others.  Here is the email I sent. 

President Nikias,

My name is Kevin Litman-Navarro and I am a freshman at the University of Southern California.  I am writing to you because in your tenure as president, USC has improved drastically as an academic institution; like you, I care deeply about bettering our school and that is why I would like your help.

Recently, we have been promoting our 2014 football season with the slogan #TurnUpSC.  This mantra bills USC as a party school, a label that I believe we need to disown in order to keep climbing the ranks and be taken as a serious contender with schools of Ivy League caliber.

I firmly believe that we need to do away with this marketing campaign.  Below is a link to an article I have written about this very slogan, and I would appreciate if you would read it and take action accordingly.  While this may seem like an insignificant matter, I think that it tarnishes our image and it would be a positive step to force #TurnUpSC into early retirement.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and Fight On.

Kevin Litman-Navarro

Unfortunately, I was sentenced to the same punishment as every troublemaker: death by frustration.

After I had sent the email to the President 3 times, I finally received a response.  My inquiry had instead been directed to the Vice Provost for Student Affairs.  

Dear Kevin,

President Nikias appreciated receiving your email, and asked that we share it with Dr. Ainsley Carry, our vice provost for student affairs.

His office will respond on behalf of the president.

Best regards,

Dennis Cornell

USC Chief of Staff

A week passed, and then I was informed that I had been shuffled on to the athletic department, which I found peculiar.  An associate athletic director sent me the following response, dripping with condescension and wet dreams of NCAA sanctions set to expire.

Dear Mr. Navarro,

I have read your letter to President Nikias as well as your article entitled  “Turn Up or Transfer”  As with any slogan or campaign, we understand that we are subject to one’s scrutiny and personal opinion.

“TurnUpSC,” as we use it, refers to being excited about USC, the upcoming season, the new coaches and the highly-rated class of incoming recruits.  The slogan has been received positively in our marketing efforts, both in the traditional sense as well as socially.  Our fans, coaches and recruits have embraced the slogan.  In fact, the #1 football recruit in California tweeted #TurnupSc on signing day.

We in no way are using the term as it is used in the urban dictionary, which is most commonly spelled “Turnt Up.”  There may be other meanings to the term but none of that points to what we do on or off the field of play nor is there any intention to relate the slogan to anything but positive energy. The imagery used to associate ourselves with the slogan is about excitement and entertainment.

The shirts you refer to in your article are shirts created independent of the athletic department by the Enzone (a student basketball loyalty group).  They too have used it to help change the culture of USC basketball in a positive manner, which is similar to what we have done in-venue to create an exciting and fun environment.  There is excitement, energy and a positive outlook that surrounds both the football and basketball programs, with new coaches and recruits coming in.

I hope that after reading this letter you have a better understanding of our intentions and that nothing about the campaign is meant to put the University, Athletic Department or anyone associated with USC in a negative light.

Fight On!

Craig Kelley

Associate Athletic Director

University of Southern California

Well I appreciate being patronized as much as the next person, I don’t, as much as the next person.  So I composed my own response, with little composure.  The frustration sentence was taking full effect; I couldn’t take much more bureaucratic douche-baggery.  I sent the following email to the Associate AD, President, Chief of Staff, and Vice Provost.

Dear Mr. Kelley,

Thank you for responding to my letter; I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule.  However, I feel that there has been a miscommunication with regards to my letter and article, and I would like to properly articulate myself in this email.

Let me begin by saying that my criticism is in no way meant to detract from our storied athletic programs.  As a USC legacy, I was born into the Trojan Family and grew up watching Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush win Heismans and National Championships.  This season I attended every home football game (I even pulled an all-nighter to get in the front row at College Gameday), and I am always happy to cheer for our teams with an enthusiastic “Fight On!”  I spent the last two years of my high school career watching incoming recruit Juju Smith dominate opposing teams, and closely monitored his decision-making process that culminated in the exciting signing day announcement.

Suffice it to say, there are few who appreciate Trojan Athletics more than me.  However, I am first and foremost a student, and I have a vested interest in ensuring that my school continues to improve.  While I do not doubt that the intentions of #TurnUpSc are admirable, I maintain that they portray the university in a negative light.

As an associate athletic director, I understand that this may not be your number one priority.  But the athletic department does not exist in a vacuum.  In the same way that USC’s academic reputation affects many decisions from prospect recruits, the marketing ploys of the athletic department affect the reputation of the university as a whole.  I think it speaks volumes about the disproportionate value USC places upon the athletic program that a letter I addressed to President Nikias was passed to the Vice Provost of Student Affairs before ending up in the hands of an associate athletic director.

Maybe because the slogan in question was proposed by the athletic marketing department, it became an issue to which athletic officials like yourself had a duty to respond.  But I am not questioning the success of your slogan; I am not questioning the intentions of your slogan.  My aim is demonstrate that #TurnUpSc tarnishes the academic reputation of our school, and this has nothing to do with athletics.

The first time the phrase “Turn Up” was associated with an organization on USC’s campus occurred when the fraternity Sigma Alpa Epsilon created t-shirts with the words “Turn Up Or Transfer” on them.  I would argue that this use of the phrase has nothing to do with getting excited about the athlete program.

This is because in the vernacular of a college or high school student, “turn up” means one thing: let’s get drunk, let loose, and have a good time.  It is disingenuous to claim that the phrase has nothing to do with a drinking partying/culture.  You noted that “turnt up” is the most common spelling of the phrase I am referring to.  For the record, “turnt up” (usually referred to as simply “turnt”) is merely the adjective to describe one who “turns up”.  For example, “Bob went to turn up.  In an hour, he will be so turnt.”

To illustrate how “Turn Up” is such an integral part of current slang, we need only look at Billboard’s Top Charts for dance/electronic music.  Coming in at number three, we have a winner: “Turn Down For What” by upstanding role model Lil Jon.  Roughly, the phrase “turn down for what” translates into the following — why stop turning up?

As I’m sure you have surmised by now, “Turn Up” will continue to be closely tied to partying, no matter how many times USC Athletics tweets it.

That being said, I understand that you are not attempting to promote excessive drinking/partying.  But your attempt to appropriate the phrase to mean just “get excited” is not working.  People continue to associate #TurnUpSc with partying regardless of your intentions.  As I stated in my article, it is embarrassing.  I have had friends from schools all over the country (CSU’s, East and West Coast private schools, Ivy Leagues, you name it) constantly reminding me of how absurd it is that my school has adopted #TurnUpSC as a slogan.

I think part of the reason you chose #TurnUpSc as a slogan is because the phrase is relatable; people know it, it’s fun to say, and it gets people pumped.  True.  But it gets people pumped for the wrong reasons, and broadcasts USC as a place to come and party rather than a top-flight university.

Because, as you stated, this slogan only points to excitement about the new season, I would like to suggest a change.  Rather than taking a phrase that already has negative connotations tied to it, why not create a new slogan? How about “GetHypedSc”? “GetPumpedSc?” “GetGoingSc?”  For my part, I think “Fight On” is pretty good.  As a premiere marketing team, I’m sure that you could come up with something much better than my suggestions, but there are many different possibilities out there that would keep the reputation of our university intact.

For your perusal, I have included a few tweets pointing out the true nature of #TurnUpSc as a slogan, as well as Lil Jon’s music video.  I suggest you bump the bass, dim the lights, and #TurnUpSc.

Best,

Kevin Litman-Navarro

________________

Kevin Litman-Navarro

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KS7IlF8BLnM&feature=kp (Turn Down For What by Lil Jon)

https://twitter.com/FrancesWang_/status/438012439393611776

https://twitter.com/MrWatson10/status/438052402910859264

https://twitter.com/Vanessa_Wilkins/status/431598431434313728

https://twitter.com/VeeSass/status/431598313356263424

https://twitter.com/SilverFox_95/status/428762814967083009

https://twitter.com/Frustrated_Fan_/status/425784121286078464

I never received a response.  However, the TurnUpSC slogan did not make a comeback for the following season.  I have no idea if I affected this change (I’m thinking not, based upon my correspondence with the university), or if they simply decided to go with something new to keep things fre$h.  The slogan no longer lords over the 110 freeway on the Galen Center Marquee, or provides internet fodder on our recruitment videos.  I sometimes still see it on USC shuttles — right next to ex-USC coach and alcoholic Steve Sarksian’s smiling face.  Hmm.  I feel bad for the guy.  Seems like he was getting mixed signals.
IMG_0652
Me Feat. USC Shuttle and Coach Sark

Yeah, pretty sure those still drive around.  Note to self: if you ever need a sponsor, stay away from the University of Southern California.

All humor aside, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this sort of mindset can contribute to excessive drinking and even alcoholism.  This is not just irresponsible, or negligent, but actually harmful.

But Kevin, this was two years ago?  Why write this now?

Because, while #TurnUpSC may no longer be relevant, the larger implications of my struggle with USC bureaucracy continue today.  Transparency has been a huge issue between students and administration in the last couple years, in issues ranging from the Campus Climate Movement to fair wages for USC employees.  Often times it feels as if USC officials are not here to help their students, but to maintain the chryselephantine reputation of the university.

Bottom line is, student voices often times feel silenced.  I felt it here, and many more have felt it regarding issues far more pressing and sensitive than #TurnUpSC.  There have been efforts to solve this problem, and I am grateful for that.  But the lines of communication are still not open enough.

The following is an excerpt from a statement released by the Campus Climate Coalition, addressing the same frustrations I dealt with, but regarding vastly more important matters.

“Moving forward, we seek direct responses and tangible institutional support for the recommendations that we have already independently developed. Across the country, student advocacy is often met with largely symbolic gestures masked as evidence of true innovation and progress. While certainly welcome and necessary, public conversations will not be sufficient in solving this university’s “wicked problems.” We look forward to continuing a conversation that centers the voices of marginalized members of the university community and, more importantly, eagerly await follow-up responses to the concerns noted at last night’s open forum.”

I implore everyone to take this message to heart, and I hope my story can help provide another example of how USC handles student concerns.

You can join the Facebook group Campus Climate USC to follow updates on this situation and see how to contribute to the movement.

TL;DR: Bureaucracy sucks.

 

 

The Constitution: It’s Old, Folks

As mass shootings continue to solidify their place in the canon of American lifestyle, calls for increased gun control have, finally, become an oft proposed solution to curtailing firearm violence.  Not to be outshouted, however, are the gun lovers who retreat to the hallowed ground of the U.S. Constitution, holding up the 2nd Amendment, sticking out their tongues and screaming, “I told you so!”

While the veracity of the 2nd Amendment as a justification for gun ownership can (and should) be debated, I am going to grant these firearm-fetishizers their most explosive wet dream: yes, the 2nd Amendment means you can own whatever quantity of any firearm that your fearful, angry, violent little heart desires.

I have a different question: so what?  So what if the founding fathers wanted everyone to have access to firearms?  That was 200 fucking years ago; there have been some changes since then.  Sure, at the time, these men constructed a very effective governing document that has allowed our government to thrive for so long.  But I think they’ve done enough.  Maybe it’s time we take over with this whole governing thing.

Unyielding adherence to a centuries-old document just because an influential group of dudes wrote it is, quite frankly, stupid (and don’t call me Shirley).  Let’s trust ourselves to use what knowledge we have gained in the last couple of centuries to help improve our society and stop holding up the words of a few dead guys as a reason for the proliferation of violence and death.

Systemic Inequality and Hurt Feelings

University campuses across the country are undergoing movements towards addressing systemic racial inequalities as minority students and allies have become increasingly fed up with a lack of administration accountability and action.  In writing about these social grievances, Los Angeles Times contributor Jonathan Zimmerman notes that the discussion should center around empirically measured inequalities, and steer clear of an emotive argument.

“Equally troubling is the much-heard argument that everyone on campus should “validate” minorities’ experience and yield to their demands, lest we harm fragile psyches even further.”

While the point that we would do best to stay away from claims of “hurt feelings” is well-taken, I think Zimmerman misunderstands the character of argument on university campuses.  Movements towards equality, while perhaps best motivated by psychological torment, are supported and demonstrated to be a necessity by addressing concrete systemic inequalities.  There is overwhelming evidence for the systemic inequality touted by college demonstrators across the country, and to belittle their very real arguments to oversensitivity is to oversimplify the complaints.

Furthermore, the intersection of psychology and racism is not just about feelings.  Microaggressions are not about being sad, but about language and action and culture affecting the minds and ideas of our country.  Words are powerful, and should not be policed, but should be questioned and criticized at every available moment.

The “validation” of very real experiences (and feelings too) is an important first step towards recognizing how we can change our minds and our ideas through the acknowledgment of existing social inequalities we have been loathe to accept.

Students are not upset about the harm to their fragile psyches, but the racism encoded in our education system that causes such harm.  They are undeniably tied to each other, and we shouldn’t dismiss the argument because we can’t measure someone’s feelings.

Terrorists Are People, Too

Terrorism takes many forms; all insidious, devastating, and unfathomable for the great majority of the world.  The questions following such a tragedy are always the same: who is responsible; why did they do this; how can such senseless violence still happen?

And the response, regrettably, is always the same as well.

While there is an initial outpouring of empathy and support from the international community, cries for vengeance and retaliation always break through the sorrow.  We saw this yesterday, when over one hundred people were killed, and many more injured, by calculated terrorist attacks in Paris.  What began as shock and sadness quickly devolved into mob-fueled internet hatred, plucked from the palette of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the like, and splattered across my Facebook feed.

“Bomb ISIS, kill them all!”

“Nuke ISIS, no more threats.”

“I want the heads of ISIS fighters put on display in Paris and sent to the families of the victims.”

It is easy to understand these sentiments.  It is perfectly reasonable to feel anger towards the perpetrators of such massacres.  But when your proposed solution is more akin to the plot of Se7en than anything else, perhaps it’s time for some self-reflection.

More than anything, I want terrorism to be eradicated.  But that doesn’t mean I would condone everything to reach that goal.  Many have suggested that the only way we can stop these attacks is by eradicating extremist groups through force.  And maybe these people are right.  But there are costs for such violence.

How much are we willing to give up to secure our safety?  Civilian lives are at risk if we retaliate via airstrikes; American lives would undoubtedly be lost in a boots-on-the-ground invasion.  More or less than would be without large-scale action?  I don’t know.

What if we were able to kill all extremists without losing any other lives?  I’m certain that many would readily embrace this end-all hypothetical.  But it’s not as simple as that.  I’m sure many of these extremists have families.  What should we do with their children?  Kill them?  Let them live?  At what age does one become an extremist?  Maybe we could use puberty as an effective cutoff.

Even if we were able to eliminate every single extremist in the world, we would create a cultural vacuum.  Where fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, friends and neighbors once stood would be nothing but death.  You can try to explain to a child why it was necessary to kill his or her parent, but all that child is going to hear are justifications of why you took it upon yourself to take the life of their loved one.

And in the end, is that really any different then the terrorism that prompted retaliation? Sure, they initiated it, but we have long since passed the time where eye-for-an-eye was an accepted metric for punishment.

It is this very kind of retaliatory policy that allows geopolitical conflicts to fester for generations.  Once we begin killing each other, we will never be short of reasons for vengeance; it won’t even matter why we are fighting, only that WE need to kill THEM, and THEY need to kill US.

This is hardly a constructive means of achieving peace.  We need to recognize that extremists, while destructive, distasteful individuals, are people too.

They are not Satan.  They are not demons.

These are people who have a certain set of ideas, stemming from their particular instantiation of faith, or their heritage, or their upbringing.  Their ideas and actions are, in large part, the product of their environment.  They are not harbingers of evil from the depths of Hell, killing willy-nilly because they derive pleasure from their own malevolence.

These are people who have seen friends killed in American drone strikes.  People who have been held in totalitarian regimes uplifted by Western Imperialism.

These are PEOPLE.

And while our impulse may be to impose upon them the pain, the loss that we all feel, it is an impulse we have to fight.  If we give in to the fleeting satisfaction and closure of vengeance, then we are no better than the ones over which we claim such moral superiority.

The terrorist attacks yesterday in Paris claimed the lives of many; let’s be sure that they don’t steal our humanity as well.

Chiraq And The Balancing Act Of Satire

Spike Lee’s newest joint, Chiraq, has drawn ire from many following the release of the film’s trailer.  Native Chicagoans, and other activist types have been quick to claim that the film, through both the title and content, makes light of very real tragedy that many face on a day-to-day basis.  The film is an adaptation of the Ancient Greek Comedy Lysistrata, in which a woman attempts to end the Pelopponesian War by convincing a coalition of women to withhold sex from their husbands.  Given what is revealed in the trailer, the plot of the movie doesn’t seem to stray far from its inspiration.

This take on Chicago gang violence has not been well received.  One such critic is blogger Ernest Owens, who is highly disapproving of the film’s premise.

You make this a black-on-black trauma without taking into consideration external systemic factors. And to top it off, you place women of color as the barriers to these men’s burdens. That’s not original, that’s just plain pathetic.

Furthermore, you hetero-normative perspective on black masculinity and femininity is also non-evolving as well. Seriously, you’re going to place Nick Cannon in a bunch of fake tattoos, blow weed smoke, and yell “Chiraqqqqqq” and think that’s really what’s up?

Lee has since responded to such claims, challenging the critics to “see the movie first.”  According to Spike, these people have simply misunderstood the role of satire, and the elements that make it clearly distinct from comedy.  Chiraq is not a comedy, but a satire, he says.  It most certainly has humorous elements, as should any satire.  In no way does Chiraq make light of the many lives lost to gang violence in Chicago.

So what is the place of satire in telling the story of gun violence in Chicago?  As with any politically charged situation, satire is an indispensible tool that, when used correctly, should be unimpeachable.  The role of satire in addressing tragedy is to point out the elements that contribute to the absurdity of the tragedy, demonstrating how ridiculous it is that it even happened in the first place.

It seems that Lee’s hyper sexualization of women and cartoonish characterization of Chicago gangbangers is extreme enough to be regarded as absurd, self-aware, and most certainly satirical.  But is the entertainment value worth ignoring the root causes and practical solutions to Chicago’s violence?

If Chiraq manages to present gang violence in Chicago with a fresh perspective that furthers awareness and discourse, then it will be a successful satire.  If it doesn’t then it could very well go down as an espousal of sexist, backwards-thinking, insensitive cinema for which Lee should offer an apology.

In the meantime, it would probably be best to avoid writing it off entirely until we see more than two minutes of footage.

The Worst Thing Since…..

While everyone was transfixed by Donald Trump’s ascent from carnival sideshow to ringleader of the GOP primary circus, an equally insidious figure climbed the ranks at an unassuming pace that would make the tortoise proud.  According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, Ben Carson leads Trump for the top spot in the Republican Primary.

So what exactly has Carson done to make up this ground?  Major policy overhauls, charismatic speeches, and raw displays of emotion?  No.  Actually, Carson has merely appropriated the strategy of the frontrunner; rile up the fearing Tea Party base through anti-establishment rhetoric, anti-gun control hypotheticals (which have become increasingly nonsensical), and general antipathy.

While the rhetoric has been similar, the electioneering styles of the two top candidates couldn’t be more different.  Trump’s bullish anger and masterful decibel enhancement stand in direct contrast with Carson’s mild-mannered persona, which he showcased during his time on Meet The Press last Sunday.  For twenty grueling minutes, Carson long-blinked his way through Chuck Todd’s interview as I watched, agape, aghast, and alarmed, acrimoniously ululating at my television set, my yawp almost as intolerable as the neurosurgeon’s anesthetic-less, publicly aimed lobotomy.

The most compelling moment of the interview occurred when Carson, poet that he is, drew a metaphor between slavery and abortion, paralleling abortion exceptions for rape and incest with apathy toward slavery.  This is nothing new for the candidate; his somehow-no-longer-surprising rhetoric has been continually rife with slavery and holocaust comparisons (see: Obamacare is the worst thing in since slavery).

It seems that Carson draws these comparisons not because they are excellent examples, but because his wanton hyperbolic comparisons rile up his political base.  In answering Todd’s question about abortion exceptions, Carson began, “During slavery — and I know that’s one of those words you’re not supposed to say, but I’m saying it…”

Ben Carson, you maverick!

The counterpoint is easy: you can say slavery, but if you are going to compare something with one of the great injustices in human history, it better be pretty damn awful.  And yet, by showing his indignation towards others’ indignation at his slavery metaphors, Carson draws more support from a base that is currently being chased by the Boogeyman of Political Correctness.  He has taken upon the fictitious mantle of rebel-who-says-whatever-he-wants-as-a-means-of-political-dissent.  In reality, he says these things because he is either woefully misinformed, an asshole, or a much better politician than many have assumed.

Whichever it is, it is working.  And it is terrifying.

If Carson’s support doesn’t go elsewhere soon, we should start preparing for the end times; after all, he could be the worst thing since slavery.

Empathy: Let’s Not Be Conservative With It

The seemingly unsurmountable problems in Washington, D.C. have become far too exhausting; it is a tired refrain amongst pundits and the citizenry-alike that our government can achieve nothing.  Any semblance of progress has been halted by our elected officials’ constant bickering, a courageous exploration beyond the boundaries of human patience.  The modern-day Magellans of Congress seem to have confused circumnavigation with circumvention, and the Earth with the dreams, desires, and demands of their constituency.

While the mudslinging dregs of talk radio (and other mediums) have insisted that this stagnation is due to Obama’s unyielding desire to ruin our country, the overwhelming majority of less Rush Limbaugh-ish people have pointed to rigid partisan lines as the main culprit for political gridlock.  And to a certain extent, this is true; the Republican and Democratic Parties have struggled to find a middle ground on most issues, leading to much to do about many things.  Of course, minds that have inquired will likely understand that this has resulted from the Republican agenda of thwarting President Obama and the Democrats at every turn (trying to deny 9/11 first responders health care coverage, come on).

There is, unsurprisingly, an underlying reason for this undermining, underhanded politicking from the right — there are numerous major policy differences between the two parties that have led to the Republicans’ if you can’t beat them, filibuster the shit out of them strategy.  In order to combat this insidious brand of non-governing, it is imperative to focus on the similarities between the two coalitions in order to pinpoint precise areas of disagreement which, if alleviated, could lead to some genuine discourse.

Perhaps the most important aspect of government, and by extension, political parties, is the singular, overarching goal: do what is best for the country.  Practically, even this very general idea is cause for disagreement.  After all, conflicting values, policies, and fealty to lobbyists and corporations all play into the idea of exactly what is best for the country.  But on a more abstract level, it seems that everyone, regardless of position on the political spectrum, is concerned with creating an environment that will allow citizens to maximize their well-being.  If we can agree that this is a commonality between Republicans and Democrats, well by golly we can work with that.

The question then becomes, “What is the base distinction that leads our parties to pursue this goal of well-being in such drastically different ways with such drastically different ideal results?”  Because we should be concerned with the purely ideological contradictions between the two underlying philosophies of our political parties, the groups discussed will be Conservatives and Liberals, as opposed to Republicans and Democrats.  Our political system, based upon pluralism leading to compromise, masks these disparities by pulling politicians to the center, where we can all be equally upset with the middle ground.

So what is the key difference between the core values of un-politicized, unadulterated Conservatism and Progressivism?  When examining a myriad of issues, including (but not limited to): political correctness, societal privilege and circumstance, affirmative action, immigration and xenophobia, income inequality, and profiling, there are consistent elements among ideological lines.  With the Conservative comes an emphasis on the individual, and the Progressive a greater concern for the collective.  This is not to say Conservatives do not care about others: one of the “great” tenets of our Republican Party is a heavy emphasis on family values.  Many Conservatives would gladly lend a hand (financially or otherwise) to a struggling friend and family member — but when it comes to those with whom they are less directly connected, generosity is scarce.  Progressives, on the other hand, are much more concerned with aiding the general populace, and would, of course, hand Granny over to an Obamacare Death Panel if she turned up NCIS too loud, family values be damned.

This difference can be articulated in many ways.  The individual vs. the collective.  Exclusive vs. inclusive.  The most impactful, however, is the tendency common in all of these differences.  While Conservatives historically have come from a place of privilege and homogenous thought, Progressivism was nurtured in the beginnings of multicultural society.  Implicit in this varied-perspective beginning was the development of the radical difference between the two philosophies — a sense of empathy for disparate social groups.

Again, this is not to say that all Conservatives don’t possess a widespread sense of empathy and all Progressives do; rather, as an ideology, Conservatism taken in the context of American history inhibits inclusion of disparate social groups, while Progressivism fosters a climate that allows for diverse, inclusive progress.

American Progressivism began as a reactionary philosophy to massive inequalities against certain segments of society (i.e. women, African Americans, immigrants, etc.).  John Halpin and Marta Cook address this origin in Part 3 of The Progressive Tradition Series, featured on The Center for American Progress:

“Progressivism as a reform tradition has always focused its moral energy against societal injustice, corruption, and inequality. Progressivism was built on a vibrant grassroots foundation, from the Social Gospel and labor movements to women’s suffrage and civil rights to environmentalism, antiwar activism, and gay rights. The activists and leaders of these movements believed deeply in the empowerment and equality of the less privileged in society, the primacy of democracy in American life, and the notion that government should safeguard the common good from unchecked individual and commercial greed. They challenged government to eliminate its own legal injustices and also harnessed the force of government as a vital tool for advancing human freedom and establishing the “more perfect union” envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

Central to all progressive social movements is the belief that the people do not have to wait for change from the top down—that people themselves can be catalysts for change from the bottom up.”

An important aspect of the birth of Progressivism is the fact that it emerged from early multiculturalism — downtrodden minority segments needed to understand each other in order to form a coalition and survive.  By first recognizing each other as similar groups despite ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender differences and focusing on their analogous social circumstances, these groups developed mutual understanding which in turn led to empathy.  As stated, Progressivism began as a movement to improve social circumstance for oppressed groups acting against the status quo.  It relies on the perpetual inclusion of groups that are pushed out of power as power structures become more entrenched in the few (read the one percent): there will always be a group pushed out by a power that isn’t inclusive of all groups; progressivism has the potential to absorb any and all alienated groups until there is complete multicultural recognition and understanding — not a synthesis, but a cultural respect.

Conservatism, by contrast, is concerned with preserving existing power structures and policies.  As defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is a “political doctrine that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.”  This includes a preference for gradual, stable, continuous change (if any) over the radical, sweeping reforms favored by Progressivism.  Conservatism has always looked to the past as an example for future action (read stagnation), which can be problematic given our rather sordid history.

When the United States first declared independence in 1776, power was afforded not to the people, but a small, wealthy class of white, male landowners who were the (mostly) sole citizens privileged with the right to vote, the primary exercise of power in a democracy.  So one with a Conservative political stance at the time would have advocated for the preservation of such an oligarchy, while a Progressive would have pushed for large-scale upheaval of such an anti-democratic system.  With social reform movements for women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, among many others, Progressives succeeded in such upheavals (that is not to say that there is not much more work to be done in the aforementioned spheres) and forced mainstream politics to adapt to the grassroots successes.  By definition, Conservatism is antithetical to such reforms.  Because an exclusive ruling elite topped the power structure at our nation’s inception   and Conservatism is inherently concerned with preserving the status quo, true Conservatism rejects multiculturalism in favor of rule by a homogenous, privileged establishment.

Because of this rejection of multiculturalism, Conservatism has fostered an insular community that bristles at the mention of new ideas and inclusion of that which is perceived as foreign.  We see this in the racist diatribes of Donald Trump and bigoted undertones of Ben Carson, the current frontrunners for the Republican 2016 Presidential Nomination.  We see it in the fear of Muslims, immigrants and inner-city youth plastered all over Fox News.  In fact, we see this deep-seated mistrust for all groups which do not conform to the narrow Conservative mindset or are largely unknown to the Conservative base.  Because Conservatives have long-ignored these growing American populations, they have failed to develop a meaningful sense of empathy with regard to those who exist outside of their established, self-absorbed schemas.

Progressives, on the other hand, espouse values which are informed by a broad sense of empathy.  Because of their roots as a diverse movement, it has always been of the utmost importance to empathize with groups of differing backgrounds in order to actively share experiences and goals.  This sense of empathy is what motivates behavior beyond pure self-interest.

Empathy alone, however, is not enough.  While it is tempting to believe that empathy will add a net positive to society by producing conscious awareness and compassion for others, studies have shown that the relationship between empathy and altruism is a tenuous one.  Empathy is subject to the relationships of ingroups and outgroups; if applied to only select societal groups, it can actually increase harmful tribalism.

Outgroups are “any social group that an individual doesn’t identify with” and would consider to be the “other”, and they are to be contrasted with ingroups.  A group which a person perceives themselves to be a member of is an ingroup; for example, a caucasian female might see “caucasians, women, and caucasian women” as ingroups, and “males, star trek fans, and gay black preachers” as outgroups (or maybe the opposite, social constructs, am I right).  Our hypothetical woman associates with, will be influenced by, and will tend to favor her ingroups.  She might have a highly developed sense of empathy, but if she has been raised in a very insular community, its possible that she only considers, “white, rich, golf hobbyists from Newport Beach” to be an ingroup.

Because Conservatism recoils from multiculturalism, Conservatives consider massive segments of society to be outgroups and few to be ingroups, which seem to roughly exist along racial/religious/socioeconomic lines.  Whereas a middle-class Progressive might construct a socioeconomic ingroup of “the 99% percent” as opposed to “the 1% outgroup”,  a middle-class Conservative is more likely to see welfare recipients as an outgroup and rich business people as an ingroup.  This is due to their fixation on the idea of personal responsibility and the American Dream, the idea that your station in life is a direct result of your hard work.  So if one considers oneself to be a hard worker, and believes that hard work is the key ingredient to success, one is more likely to be aligned with the successful versus the not successful.  The Conservative thought pattern is one of projection: adherence to personal convictions shaped by a deeply held value for individual liberty manifest themselves in the refusal to see outgroups as anything but an external force.

Neuroscientific studies have detailed the effects of empathy when directed toward both ingroup and outgroup members.  According to a 2014 study regarding neurology and empathy conducted by Claus Lamm and Jasminka Majdanzic, “empathy is sensitive to deeply-rooted parochialism and ingroup bias… for instance, there is substantial and consistent evidence stemming from a variety of experimental approaches and neuroscientific methods that humans show reduced neural responses to pain being inflicted on ethnic outgroup members.”  Furthermore, when an outgroup is perceived as threatening, empathetic reactions are additionally altered.  As stated in an MIT Study on Intergroup empathy, “People with the most empathy for members of their ingroup may thus experience the most schadenfreude toward a threatening outgroup. When an outgroup is perceived as antagonistic, people respond less empathically to outgroup members but also more empathically to ingroup members.”  This means that increased and decreased empathy for ingroups and outgroups, respectively, is in a sense self-progagating, acting in a vicious cycle of fear, schadenfruede, and diminished understanding.

There are many examples of these phenomena in our current political climate, crystallized in ongoing debates over political correctness, societal privilege and circumstance, affirmative action, immigration and xenophobia, income inequality, and profiling.  Political correctness, which has become one of the most contentious issues of our day remains one of the largest rifts between Democrats and Republicans.  What democrats see as basic human decency (see browser extension), Republicans view as a communistic oppression of expression and thought; this is because of their inability/refusal to see from the perspective of the minority/outgroup who benefits from the PC culture.  As one blogger so aptly put it, “We also might think of ‘PC culture’ as ‘empathy culture’.” A conservative likely sees an unemployed but hard-working family member as down on his luck, but a welfare recipient as lazy, even though the likelihood that the recipient is a hard worker is just as likely as the family member.

Because Conservatives, while empathetic to ingroups, harbor few empathetic sentiments towards outgroups, an overall increase in empathy will not necessarily create a more compassionate society; in fact, “it will likely replace egoism by its twin brother: an ingroup-favoring type of altruism – thereby widening rather than diminishing the boundaries between social groups.”

In this sense, we need to build empathy for all groups by transforming perceived outgroups into ingroups.  Only through increasing multicultural understanding thusly will Conservatives be able to gain a wider sense of compassion of those who are now considered “the other.”  Practically speaking, there are two ways to do this: by combating the widespread fear of “the other” and backlash against multiculturalism found in Conservative circles, and by providing meaningful personal experiences that will humanize outgroups for sheltered, close-minded individuals.

Combating the general fear climate of the Conservative base is certainly a daunting prospect.  It starts with addressing the manic fear-mongering/ratings boosting shouting employed by Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’ Reilly, and the like.  There must be a demand for a modicum of media responsibility when it comes to presenting facts, or at least addressing bias in an open manner.  We have to eliminate the idea that we should be in constant fear of terrorists attacks, are in danger of economic collapse from illegal immigrants, and that we must be armed to defend ourselves from the threat of a tyrannical government.  It all comes down to the sweeping platitude: Mexican or Muslim, poor or rich, black or white, we are all part of the human ingroup.

To substantiate this idea, we need to work towards humanizing those whom we purport to not understand.  According to Lamm and Majdanzic’s study,

“Persons whose mental states had been reflected upon were sacrificed less often in scenarios requiring to sacrifice their life to prevent casualties in a greater number of others. This decision bias was therefore acting against the moral principles of utilitarianism, which proposes that one ought to act in a way that maximizes the net social welfare (West, 2013), as well as against the moral principle to treat all people equally (McKerlie, 2013). These moral decisions could be explained by a higher degree of connectedness to and “humanization” of the persons whose mental states one had previously considered, as compared to persons who had not been mentalized with.”

Again, the key is adopting the perspective of another, or experiencing empathy as an avenue for understanding.

While I have mainly focused on American politics in this critique, perhaps no region is in more need of this humanization more than Israel-Palestine.  Thankfully, one café in Israel is answering the proverbial call of duty.  The owner of the Humus Bar, Kobi Tzafrir, is currently offering a 50% discount to Jews and Arabs who will eat together.  This is exactly the kind of meaningful, personal experience that underscores the commonalities between two diametrically opposed social groups — regardless of violent conflict and hatred, everyone belongs to the ingroup that appreciates good humus.  It’s a start.

Bottom line, the reason Progressivism is more inclusive and beneficial for a collective-concerned society is because its roots in multiculturalism have created an environment of inclusion that has increased the potential number of ingroups for those subscribed to the philosophy.  Thus their sense of empathy is targeted to larger segments of society, leading to overall compassion, understanding, and the desire to work together for collective advancement.  Perhaps if Conservatives start to build such a network of care, we will be able to begin the conversation anew and create some tangible change.