Home Features Does university brainwash us into adopting certain political views?

Does university brainwash us into adopting certain political views?

Gaby Wills explores whether we're being given no choice but to think a certain way about the US Presidential Election.

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Image: Gage Skidmore/Commons.wikimedia.org

On the evening of 8 November 2016, I went to ‘The US Presidential Election 2016 Talk’. This is the last of a series of talks on campus where I went with expectations of hearing a variety of opinions and being presented with thought-provoking points before the big decision was made. As each of the five speakers introduced themselves, I was shocked to realise that not one of them supported Donald Trump. In fact, all of them were strongly against him. I am used to hearing the majority of my fellow students holding this view from everyday conversations, and recently even my lecturers now and again have slid in the odd derogatory remark towards Trump, to which all the audience laugh. However, I’m surprised that an official talk held on the election would present just one side of the debate.

The one-sided talk

During the talk, it seemed there were missed opportunities to discuss the strengths of Trump’s policies where a more balanced debate could have arisen. For example, his relationship with Putin was a hot topic, but surely having a friendly relationship with a potentially dangerous country, rather than being in conflict, is a safer option. Instead this was twisted as to why on earth does he have a relationship with him in the first place? Small events which are inconsequential to his term as a president are cherry-picked and not universal to their standards.

it was as if I was being forced to think a certain way.

To elaborate, Clinton’s email scandal was brought up and dismissed with a comment along the lines of “Why is that still around anyway?”. Surely one could ask the same question about the rape allegations that happened over twenty years ago having suddenly been brought up, and that not half as much media attention was given to the same allegations that stand against Bill Clinton. Where there are accusations with no evidence, what happened to innocent until proven guilty? Therefore it’s apparent that: a) Clinton is not held to the same standard, whereby if people are truly against immoral actions they would acknowledge Clinton’s wrongs and be equally angry about it, and b) Educational talks on political agenda should focus more on facts and policies rather than comments taken out of context.

Previously when I thought of university, I put it as a place that gives individuals the skills to think for themselves, stand out from the crowd and learn more about the world free of dogma. Universities claim to value diversity and tolerance as well as equal opportunities for all people. However, by simply not presenting the other opinion, of which there were only two, makes me wonder if this is all just a façade meant to cloak the subtle bigotry of academia. If someone attended this talk not knowing much on the US election, they would have most probably left the room fully supporting Clinton, exonerating her many values and virtues and believing Trump, as you hear in various online circles, to be a “monster”.

Hillary Clinton in 2007. Image: Flickr.com
Hillary Clinton in 2007. Image: Flickr.com

This, however, is not the point. The point is that the audience weren’t even given a chance to see the opposing side, and what in the end turned out to be the winning view in the US. They weren’t even presented with a balanced argument taking into consideration both candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, which would most likely have urged individuals to use their own initiative, do further research (if they wished) and think for themselves until they came to a standpoint they were fully confident with. For example, when I did an intense course on Israel’s history, I was presented not only with the leading cases and reasons from Israel’s point of view, but also those from Palestine. Coming away from this I felt better informed and confident that I could argue and understand a debate, having been made aware of both sides of the story. In contrast, on my way back from the US election talk on campus, I was shocked and disappointed that it was as if I was being forced to think a certain way.

Thinking against the norm

Regardless of who you support, we have seen throughout history that the huge breakthroughs are when individuals are able to think against the consensus. An example of this is Margaret Thatcher, whom opposed a lot of external pressure to privatise the industries which proved better in the long run. In addition, Gandhi spoke out against the way India was being controlled and was consequently put in jail for some time. He later said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” This famous quote is somewhat relevant to the predictable behaviour we have seen towards Donald Trump, should he do as he claims and “make America great again”.

The media’s manipulation during the election

Thinking against the norm is especially relevant with this year’s presidential election where the media were the main form of support for Hillary Clinton. The media’s job is to give an honest report on events, investigate them and, with this, get to the bottom of scandals. However, during the entire election, the mainstream media were just proclaiming propaganda! Even worse, the media did not apologise nor retract their articles when found to support false information. Will there be economic repercussions to all those who promoted lies and false allegations? In fact, many independent news outlets have described the media during this election as burning their own credibility. Even on the day of the election, estimations on Clinton’s chance of winning stated by media such as CNN and ABC varied from 65 to 99 per cent. Therefore, they’ve completely damaged their credibility – as evidenced with all-time low approval rates, where 6 per cent of the US public were found to trust the media in a survey published April of this year.

Furthermore, every single presidential-orientated clip or article that appeared on my Facebook news feed was in support of Clinton, either labelling Trump as a sexist, racist, monster or the new Hitler – all of which none of us want to associate with the US President. Alternatively, many people criticise Trump by making fun of him – a form of mockery to belittle the enemy instead of providing concrete facts? This brings about the all-too-familiar reaction of laughing at him, thus provoking thought as to whether we’ve been conditioned by propaganda to not take him seriously. When being constantly and exclusively bombarded with strong and emotive opinions against a certain individual, it’s difficult to think for yourself and dare to go against the norm in order to reach an accurate and well-justified conclusion.

Are we not able to hold more than one opinion?

Underlying these biases is the fact that when an individual holds such a strong opinion against someone, it’s thought that they view all his/her behaviour through a lens and skewer it to fit their beliefs. Without this lens, it would result in cognitive dissonance – the stressful process whereby an individual with an emotional bias is confronted with conflicting information that is backed up with evidence and logic to pre-existing beliefs. Therefore one is less able to integrate new information because of pre-existing bias held, and will reject it.

I could explain where I stand with my opinion on the presidential election but that’s not relevant. The thing that scares me is the possibility that I’m part of an unapologetically one-sided system which prides itself on equipping us with critical thinking and mental tools to go out into the real world and make a positive difference. How is anyone going to change anything if all they know to do is follow the crowd? Before coming to university someone close to me advised against it, concerned that it is a form of ‘brainwashing’ young people and thereby making them think a certain way. Despite what they said, I decided to come. I hadn’t experienced being exposed to such a limited handful of all-too-similar opinions so openly and in plain sight until now.

Sometimes we need to pause and ask ourselves: “Why has this piece of information been selected rather than the other information available?” 

To sum up…

I hope this makes however many people read this aware that it’s important to be sceptical of the information you are fed. All human beings have different motives and inherent bias, so when presented with new information it’s crucial to look for the facts, evidence and context. Sometimes we need to pause and ask ourselves: “Why has this piece of information been selected rather than the other information available?” Nothing should be taken at face value and it’s easy to jump to conclusions. It is so tempting to feel safe believing what everyone else does, and peer pressure is real! But having a chance to exhaust your mind on a variety of ideas and the courage to delve deeper is a main form of personal growth.

Personal growth is “activities that improve awareness and identity, develop talents and potential, build human capital and facilitate employability, enhance the quality of life and contribute to the realisation of dreams and aspirations” – something I believe biased talks like these prevent us from achieving. Don’t conform just because it is easy.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I like the concept of this article about whether university pushes us to believe certain political views, but I think you have gone about it in completely the wrong way. Using the US Presidential Election talk as the foundation for you argument is very flawed, and your comparison of the neutrality on the Trump/Clinton debate against your Israel/Palestine module isn’t the most compelling or valid argument. I would also note that having attended the Trump/Clinton talk, none of the lectures were that keen on Hillary either, and I think you have overemphasised an atmosphere of pro-Hillary, disregarding the warnings they also presented about her potential presidency. Despite the above, I like how you use Cognitive Dissonance theory, but would be wary of blaming the university for causing political biases, overlooking the constant political socialisations at play.

    • She was writing about an experience first hand which i would imagine encouraged her to write the article in the first place. Therefore the US Election Talk is the entirety of which the article is based on.
      The Israel/Palestine “argument”, isn’t really a standing argument in such a sense but more of a point to prove. It is a comparable situation where it shows what really any lecture/information should include, that being nothing less than all the sides to the subject (Informing not persuading). Its a basic tell that you get the whole spectrum of views of an argument to then decide. As a one sided/bias telling will only lead to a misinformed audience.

      • Cheers for this comment by the way, you captured and explained perfectly the purpose of the article!
        – Gaby

    • As mentioned in the previous reply, the talk is used as my foundation because it was the component which did encourage me to write this article.
      With regards to the Israel/Palestine comparison, I used this because it was the best example that was personally relevant to my experiences. I could really relate to the different feeling I was left with afterwards due to the different approach that was undertaken. It may not be the most compelling example but as both are controversial topics I think they compare well, and it highlights the way it empowers the audience as they leave much more informed.
      I agree that some warnings were stated against Hilary, but with less greater emphasis which all together created the atmosphere that I felt. Whilst the speakers may not have been extremely pro-Hilary, I do believe they were very against Trump.
      Thank you for your feedback and perspective!

    • Its an article that opens a view on if the university have biases in lectures.
      Isnt that pretty fucking obvious.

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