Since last year, I’ve grown more and more hesitant to discuss sensitive topics, such as democracy, religion, liberty and gender in the United States.
I remember a casual conversation I had with a writing tutor about authoritarian and democratic regimes. Upon mentioning my reservations about incomplete and early democratization, she said with judgment, “Don’t you think this is a condescending Western view?” I was speechless, appalled. With that one rhetorical question, I had become the enemy, the ignorant who believed that only certain people were suited to live in a democracy. This was ironic because I come from Turkey. It pains me to write this only a day after grieving over the death anniversary of our republic’s father Ataturk, but my country’s relationship with democracy has been challenging and especially worsened in the last decade. I have witnessed firsthand the deterioration of free speech, women’s rights and religious liberty: freedoms that many Americans take for granted today. And yet my words were taken out of context so easily; my experience was stripped of its gravity.
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated experience. Whenever I pointed out the difference between a forced and a democratic hijab, for instance, people were quick to frown upon my perspective. Hijab is a symbol of religious liberty when a woman chooses to wear it. But it can also very easily become a symbol of tyranny and oppression when the law dictates it to be mandatory. Yet the latter is unknown to many here — I strongly hope it stays this way — and the unknown is often deemed unimportant.
That is why I found myself remaining silent whenever such conversations happened. No one really wanted to know the experiences of a person that did not grow up with these established liberal ideas. No one really wanted to discuss the potential loopholes in these ideas nor how their implementation differed from country to country. And deep down I have become afraid of being perceived as someone I am not because my words are taken out of context. One’s background and personal experiences matter a lot, yet so rarely do we consider them, removing the unpopular views from the conversation altogether.
There is a reason why the United States is still seen as the land of freedom and democracy. This is where many of our liberal ideas were born and implemented for the first time. This is where millions of people find refuge in their fight to gain the simplest liberties in their countries of origin. But this does not mean that there are no more lessons to be learned, no more mistakes to be rectified. That is why learning what went wrong in the democratic institutions of a country or how religion is manipulated under the name of religious liberty can be fundamental references for the future. Condemning these views as anti-democratic or anti-liberal not only feeds more into the ignorance and propensity to make false assumptions, but also destroys the room for improvement. Just because the United States has always been the beacon of democracy does not, unfortunately, guarantee that it will always remain that way. We have recently seen the rise of authoritarian values under the Trump presidency. The lessons learnt from those unpopular opinions and experiences can then stop the further spread of such values.
This complex issue, in fact, has a much simpler solution that one of my professors showed me. Upon bringing up my hesitation to share my counterviews and personal experiences, he continuously encouraged me to speak up. With time, my classmates also started to appreciate these discussions. Their initial defensive attitudes turned into a desire to understand and reflect. These were still challenging conversations, but they were much more open and welcoming to different angles. People were not afraid to be singled out and hushed just because they mentioned what millions of people were going through on a daily basis.
That is why I strongly believe that this is the example we should follow on a larger scale at Yale. Because only then we can truly see the value in context and gain a deeper level of understanding of the values we so strongly defend. Only then the fear of being misunderstood, the fear of being taken out of context stops dictating our conversations.
SUDE YENILMEZ is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Her column, ‘Piecing Together,’ runs every other Thursday. Contact her at email@example.com.