The vitriolic political discourse and debate over speech in America, and on college campuses, is troubling to many.
It is especially so for Chaouki Abdallah, the interim president of the University of New Mexico, who came to the United States at age 19 to study and flee his home in Lebanon as it was plunging into conflict.
“There are a lot of lessons for this country” in what happened in Lebanon starting in the 1970s, he said during a recent interview.
“Maybe two years before the first shots were fired, political parties were starting to have a lot more influence on what was happening on college campuses and high schools. So people started initially arguing, they started dividing more along the lines of political affiliations connected to religious affiliations. Christians on the right, Muslims on the left, communists, etc.
“Then the arguments became fistfights, then people started to bring knives and brass knuckles. At my school, they had to walk right outside the door to fight.”
After the broader fighting started, he said, people separated. The Muslims would not come to the park on the Christian side, and the newspapers became very divided in their coverage. “If you read the paper on one side, you would think the other side are animals coming to rape and kill. If you read on the other side, it’s reversed,” he said.
It’s almost like what’s happening here, although Abdallah notes that the institutions in the United States, including police, “are much stronger here.”
“When I was growing up, I had a lot of friends. I didn’t think of people as part of religious sects or their political affiliations.”
“There were five to seven of us at school, a couple of Shiites, one Druze, one Muslim, a couple of Christians. … We were all good friends.”
“There were no more connections. I used to meet my Muslim friends to play basketball, and then we would go out to do something. We became very segregated. Some of those friends I didn’t see for 15 years.”
One of the controversies during his time as acting president involved demands by some groups to prohibit controversial conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. Abdallah refused, even though campuses elsewhere had buckled in the face of threatened violence.
“People absolutely know the truth. They are intolerant of the other side’s point of view. They don’t listen to each other. On campuses, there is intolerance on both sides. The left-leaning think they own the truth, and vice versa, and people think the other side are crybabies and don’t deserve to have their own speakers.”
He said college campuses need to be a place where people can sit and communicate and argue, have a conversation even when they feel passionate about something.
“I do feel like we are starting to separate emotionally. There is no longer a common identity, like we were no longer ‘Lebanese.’ I see shades of that in our national discourse here.”
“We are becoming so entrenched,” he said. “If I disagree with you, not only are you wrong, you are evil.”
“Can’t we just say that even if we only agree on 20 percent, we just have philosophical differences?”