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‘Tumultuous’ election takes center stage at ‘DifCon’ event

The fourth "DifCon" event originally was to be about the Cleveland and Philadelphia political conventions, but discussion quickly pivoted to the election.

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published October 28, 2016

“Demographics are shifting and the world is shifting.”
Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies and director
Gender Institute

This year’s “tumultuous” presidential election — with all its rancor, misogyny and seemingly accepted raw behavior — continues to disillusion and frighten UB voters, according to those attending UB’s latest DifCon event aimed at fostering constructive conversations about provocative issues.

The fourth of five daily discussions on topics including American violence and academic freedom, Thursday’s edition of “Our Cities. Our Issues.” brought out familiar anxiety and outrage over this year’s political race. The election process has been, according to Chitra Rajan, associate vice-president for research advancement who has attended several DiFCon workshops, “so vile and so beyond the pale” it has left her with a feeling of “great disappointment.”

The good news is the DifCon discussion — ostensibly about the Cleveland and Philadelphia political conventions but which quickly pivoted to the election — once more accomplished its goal. The university held a 90-minute, open-to-anyone conversation about the year’s polarizing election. It evolved into a measured, educated discussion, perfectly hitting its goal as defined by organizer Teresa Miller, vice-provost for equity and inclusion.

“The goal is not to agree,” she told the panel and audience before anyone spoke. “But to gain a deeper understanding.”

Everyone attending the session in the Intercultural and Diversity Center could agree on this: With what has gone on this election year with these candidates, a tempered, collegial, 90-minute discussion itself was an accomplishment.

The other good news is that one of the featured speakers – the panel included economics professor Alex Anas, political science professor James Battista and Kari Winter, director of the Gender Institute — saw reason for “a little bit” of optimism.

 “If we look in the 19th Century,” Winter told the small but engaged audience after each panelist gave a 10-minute presentation, “if you wanted to know when slavery was the worst in slave states, when it was the most repressive, when the most horrifying laws were passed, when the rhetoric was the most racist — it was right before the Civil War.

“When slaveholders could see what was coming and were scared, really scared. (That’s when) the institution entered its worst phase. Right before the Civil War.”

Winter emphasized the obvious. She was not suggesting another Civil War. But her point was that people who were racist or sexist can sense the coming of fundamental, meaningful change.

“Demographics are shifting and the world is shifting,” Winter said. “They can’t wall that off. White male supremacy in the United States is not sustainable. It is going to go away. It is going to shift. But there are people clinging to it. And I think what you’re seeing (in this election) is a kind of last gasp.”

Nevertheless, the level of discourse and — as one audience member expressed it — Republican candidate Donald Trump’s bragging of sexual assault, has taken a toll on well-meaning voters, participants said.

“This election has really unearthed a lot of subtle racism and prejudices people have had,” said Brendan Tom, a workforce recruitment specialist in Human Resources. “Even looking through comments on social media, it’s astounding how things that before were unacceptable have become socially acceptable to say. People aren’t afraid to voice something you should be really ashamed to say.”

Miller framed the series — sponsored by the Intercultural and Diversity Center and the Office of the Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion — by saying it emerged “out of concern that the summer was so turbulent.” The UB community would return to campus, Miller said, and wonder “‘We’re here now and nothing seemed to have changed. We’re not really talking about it.’ It’s that sense of ‘Wait. There is all this going on in the outside world.’

“And my concern is how it affects us at UB.”