And the importance of open and honest discourse

The growing polarization within our political party system is no obscure truth. The chasm between liberals and conservatives has been ever-expanding, a bottomless pit of deadlocked despair. Government shutdowns, fiery debates, relentless filibusters and marriage disapprovals are only a few examples of its consequences. It doesn’t help that social media, an unavoidable societal staple, contributes to the political polarization by creating "echo chambers" which not only magnify confirmation bias, but also stifle cross-pollination of ideas and harden extremist views.

But recently, a new phenomenon is on the rise: the revival of cancel culture and the silencing of non-progressive, contrarian views. What it means to be an “accepted liberal” has seemingly changed. You could have voted for the Democrats in every presidential election, participated in every Women's March, donated to LGBTQ initiatives, supported income equality and Black lives, and yet, if you just so raise a finger questioning the effectiveness of riots, or lament property destruction, I'm sorry, you're cancelled, and maybe you should also consider resigning.

Social media has its own merits, which I won’t get into, but it has also unintentionally propelled the emergence of a new social construct — one that suppresses intellectual discourse and good-faith disagreements. Any person, idea, or research can fall prey to a mob takedown on Twitter. You either subscribe to the predominant narrative on social media, or you’re definitely wrong, and probably a racist. This reaction has tainted prominent publications, as Bari Weiss stated in her resignation letter:

Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.

Her letter came weeks after her colleague, James Bennet, resigned as editor of The New York Times' editorial page. Bennet had drawn widespread criticism from colleagues and prominent figures on Twitter after the publication of Republican Sen. Tom Cotton's controversial op-ed, which called to “send in the troops.”

In her letter, Weiss wrote:

As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.

Whether or not you support Sen. Cotton's argument, it is undeniable that he, a Senator for Arkansas and likely the Republican presidential candidate in 2024, is an important public figure with substantial political backing. Thus, his opinions are a critical reflection of the realities that exist in our country. Given that the New York Times, one of our nation's most coveted news platform, felt compelled to outwardly apologize for publishing a conservative viewpoint, what does that say about all the other conservative voices that make up the United States? Ignoring these views, regardless of whether they are accurate, implies a denial of this reality. Perhaps this is why we (liberals) failed to predict the rise of Trumpism, as we don’t even want to hear anything that goes against our own righteous beliefs (in fact, we criticize conservatives for being stubborn).

Conservative political commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote as he exited New York Magazine to restart his independent blog:

If the mainstream media will not host a diversity of opinion, or puts the “moral clarity” of some self-appointed saints before the goal of objectivity in reporting, if it treats writers as mere avatars for their race and gender or gender identity, rather than as unique individuals whose identity is largely irrelevant, then the nonmainstream needs to pick up the slack.

A vicious cycle develops, fueled by a “chilling effect,” where writers, researchers, and public figures alike refrain from mildly controversial topics in fear that doing so will result in the loss of their jobs and / or reputations. Questioning the liberal herd mentality, posing challenging beliefs and even calling out the strain on free speech, regardless whether you identify as a liberal, may generate animus amongst your colleagues and peers.

Recently, a prominent group of writers and academics signed a seemingly harmless open letter arguing that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” The letter raised eyebrows, and responses criticized its vague text and suggested that “marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing.” Moreover, a Princeton professor was chastised for publishing his mildly opposing stance on a faculty letter that demanded perks to people of color.

The rebukes are valid, but the resulting backlashes appear to misconstrue the original objective of the author(s). But those who have stood up to denounce the impairments on free speech are prominent individuals, well respected for their literature, research, and societal contributions. They know they will survive the backlash, but many others, silenced from fear of being cancelled or losing their jobs, remain in the shadows.

America has long ways to go to promote a safe and anti-racist space for all marginalized communities, but we also need open and honest discourse to debate existing misconceptions and define the best solutions to dedicate our resources towards.

The dismissal of certain thought expressions reinforces tribalism, and democracy becomes less meaningful as people become more tribal in nature. In other words, let’s avoid a neoliberal orthodoxy, and instead, channel the energy towards discussing the immediate reforms our country needs to take and debate the merits and limitations of those ideas.

You should be able to embrace liberal values and support progressive movements while admonishing the current limitations on free speech. The objective is the same — to establish a society that actively addresses the startling inequality in our nation and the racism deeply rooted in our systems. Rather than calling out The New York Times for publishing Tom Cotton’s op-ed, let’s discuss why his approach hurts society; rather than shutting out opinions against violent protests, let’s instead discuss police reform and incremental, rational changes in the workplace and college campuses.

The chasm between the political parties and the emerging fissure within the liberals do not need to get any bigger. The best policies come from active participation and open discourse, and publications are in the best position to drive this dialogue.

Once we set aside our previous affiliations, acknowledge different perspectives, and proactively challenge and question others and our own beliefs, we may actually see real change and growth.

And what you can do to help

“Refugees are not terrorists. They are often the first victims of terrorism” — António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres (Secretary-General of the United Nations)

But claiming “refugees” as “terrorists” is exactly what the Trump administration did to justify executive orders to reduce the cap on refugee admissions. The order instituted a Muslim ban which blocks travel to the United States from six predominantly Muslim countries. This is not an act to protect the safety of the American people; rather, it is a xenophobic expression of our backwards progression as a free country, intensifying with the advent of COVID.

The United States is a nation built by immigrants. It previously set an example to the rest of the world with its welcoming borders. According the the U.S. State Department, the U.S. admitted over 3 million refugees and granted asylum status to over 700,000 individuals over the past three decades. But as of 2019, the administration cut the annual refugee cap to 30,000, a 65% drop from the 2016 limit. Public support and reactions are further fueled by prejudice, misconceptions and fears that are exaggerated by unsubstantiated claims.

Some believe that refugees are simply taking advantage of America’s rich economy by moving away from poorer regions, or that refugees steal jobs and lower wages for natives. Others still believe refugees are terrorists and America will be safer without them. All three ideas are misconstrued and falsely popularized.

A refugee, as defined by international law, is someone outside the country of her nationality, who is unable or unwilling to return to her country due to persecution or fear of persecution. They have little desire to leave their families and friends behind and start fresh in a foreign country. Especially among poorer families, people are unlikely to leave their villages even when there are strong incentives present. The risk and uncertainty involved in the process is a massive undertaking that can potentially lead to even worse consequences. Most refugees have no other choice but to leave, given the precarious nature of their situation.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that suggests that increased migration negatively impacts wages of natives. Examining empirical research in recent decades, the US National Academy of Sciences concludes that “the impact of immigration on the wages of natives overall is very small” (267). You may wonder, why is that? Migrants take on jobs that many natives refuse to work, and hence they are not in direct competition with each other, as the positions would have been left unfilled. Employers favor familiarity, and research indicates that migrants do not take away jobs natives already hold, even if they offered to do it at lower wages.

The idea that terrorism in America is aggravated by the admission of refugees within our borders is largely conflated. Research indicates that the probability of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year, which is significantly lower than the chance of being murdered by a tourist (1 in 3.9 million per year). Furthermore, terrorist threat in the U.S. is found to be largely homegrown. Not only is foreign-born terrorism in the U.S. a low-probability event, it is also attributed largely to people who are citizens or permanent residents. There is little evidence that suggests closing America’s doors to refugees will protect the U.S. from terrorism.

In fact, migration brings a number of economic benefits to our country. For refugees, it takes a great deal of patience, grit, money, and ambition to get to where they are. The journey is long and arduous, and the screening and vetting process alone takes an average of two years. To be admitted to the U.S., refugees go through several rounds of background checks, screenings, and interviews under the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Therefore, those who are admitted bring their entrepreneurial energy and stamina to their host country, leading to greater innovation, higher production output, and increased consumption for our economy.

We should not let misinformation guide our views towards refugees, nor should we let xenophobia, racism, and fear overpower our compassion. They are not stealing our jobs or lowering our wages; they are not trying to take advantage of our economy nor are they increasing terrorism within our borders. In fact, refugees do not even have the final say in where they are placed; that is for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to decide.

So what can we do?

The recent coronavirus pandemic could result in further complications for refugees. Post-pandemic, the administration may continue to tighten its immigration and asylum-seeking policies for migrants. Growing economic woes, sense of nationalism, and xenophobic attitudes can squeeze the nation inwards. It is already terrifying and difficult to adjust to a foreign country while being far from loved ones, and it becomes much more challenging when the leaders of the host country seemingly despise their existence.

As we enter an altered society, we should set our fears aside and embrace solidarity.

We can start discussions and use data to help educate people in our community about the costs and rewards of migration. We can offer housing, employment, and educational assistance to ease their integration. We can advocate for greater refugee protection in the U.S., and denounce justice-obstructive policies implemented by the administration. We can provide financial assistance by donating to NGOs that support refugees. Some examples include UNHCR, IRC, Migration Policy Institute, UNICEF, Save The Children, and Alight.

But most importantly, we can offer solace directly to refugees by simply listening to their stories and better understanding the world through their eyes.

With COVID-19, we belong neither in the U.S. nor China

As a 1.5 generation Chinese American, I no longer know where I belong. Being part of the “1.5 generation” refers to individuals like myself who immigrated to America in our childhood, and, in contrast to other Chinese Americans, we believe the U.S. is as much our home as is China. But the pandemic has created more separation and divide at a time when solidarity and support are essential. What I’m witnessing across both the U.S. and China is the growing sense of fear and frustration that overpowers rationality and compassion, emotions that trump reason. The results not only can become economically disastrous (via a trade war or worse), but may also propel an identity crisis among many of us who consider both countries our home. And to be blatantly honest, I feel fully accepted by neither the U.S. nor China at this moment.

My family immigrated to America from Southern China when I was just entering elementary school, and growing up, I took pride in my duality of values. As an immigrant, American and Chinese culture were equally represented in my upbringing, and the freedom to move across both countries was a luxury I gratefully embraced. In the U.S., the feeling of acceptance took many years to establish — it took mastering the language, understanding norms and pop culture, and constantly contemplating my Eastern heritage alongside my Western surroundings. When I return to China, it would take a few weeks to habituate to the dry humor, frequent use of idioms, and etiquette in front of guests and the elderly. Within each culture, I bring a bit of the other inside — eating pizza with chopsticks or mixing Chinese music with American lyrics. Having this duality makes me neither fully American nor fully Chinese, but a special mix of both, and with time, I was accepted as both.

But recently, as Sino-US tensions reached a new climax, I fret that this feeling of acceptance is at risk. In America, the increasing antagonism is rather unnerving. Each day, I listen to bitter accusations by the Trump administration blaming China for the virus and threatening to intensify the trade war, as if the current sanctions are insufficient. When I read about senators suing China in federal court for “causing the global pandemic that was unnecessary and preventable,” or pushing for a bill to allow American “victims” to sue and seek reparations from the Chinese government, I worry that racism towards not just Chinese people, but Asian Americans as a whole, will gain momentum within the America. Two-thirds of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, a sentiment that has increased 20% since the start of the Trump administration. Animus is often strong among Republicans, but recently, Democrats are also agreeing that the Chinese government bears responsibility for the spread of the virus.

Fear and disdain are contagious, and if we allow it to fester, the resulting consequence could be a Cold War between the U.S. and China that’s even more tense than the previous one with the Soviet Union. It’s unlikely that we will see something to the extreme of Japanese internment camps during World War II, but as anti-Chinese fervor builds, I would not be surprised if a “Chinese ban” became the new Muslim ban. I hope history will not repeat itself, but in today’s situation, nothing can be said for certain.

For the broader category of Asian Americans, we wonder whether the negative sentiment towards the Chinese government will translate into daily life animosity towards Asians living in the America. Anecdotes of services requested by Asian Americans being rejected run rampant across our community. A friend’s mother was just refused service by a gardener because she was Chinese; an Asian friend of mine lives in constant anxiety ever since a stranger left threatening messages in her cell inbox. The coining of the term “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” by Mr. Trump has only incited greater friction. When I see #chinazi, #ChinaMustPay and #ChinaLiedPeopleDied trending on twitter, I take a personal affront mostly because I know how contagious negative language and bitterness can become. The quarantine somewhat protects us from confronting these people face-to-face, but post-pandemic, will anger and frustration be channeled towards us when we look for jobs, order in restaurants, travel from place to place? Within the confines our home we can only play these scenarios in our heads and mindlessly worry about our future in America.

When discrimination abroad exacerbates, I along with many other first and 1.5 generation Chinese Americans think about returning to China. But going back to our home country proves to be a challenge as well. As the epicenter for the outbreak shifts from China to Western countries, mounting fears of a virus resurgence in China were met with hostility towards foreigners and induced other xenophobic responses. I receive frequent messages in a WeChat group touting the dangers of taking in Chinese people who are abroad. A forwarded message from the health department that warns of Chinese citizens returning from South East Asian countries and Europe sparked debate about whether they should be let in. Another message discusses the public’s outrage towards rich families requesting a charter flight from the government for study-abroad students in the U.K. The anger grew from the issue of letting in the students, to patriotism, and finally to the growing class divide (only the wealthy could afford sending their children abroad) and traditional Chinese culture and education. “Have you considered the hardships and sacrifices made by China to achieve today’s epidemic prevention achievements?” the message reads. And as the rumors and insults from the U.S. cross into their borders, they retaliate with similarly vicious words. Within my own community, I see rebuttals from both sides become increasingly defensive.

For myself, I had originally intended to return to China for a few months this year, but my parents and relatives strongly objected, showering me with public shaming anecdotes verbally attacking returning foreigners. When I toss around the idea of working in Beijing, they admonish that Sino-U.S. relationships are at its nadir and the trade war may disrupt business.

Sometimes when I return to China, I am asked by natives, “Why did you leave in the first place? Was this country not good enough for you?”

I felt the question to be unfair, since in my mind, I did not choose America over China, or China over America. They were both my homes. The idea of not being welcome to China, coupled with intensifying antagonism towards Chinese Americans in the U.S., worsens the identity crisis, as I fight to cling onto the two cultures that nurtured me.

Must the situation end like this? No. There’s still time to unite and set aside xenophobic attitudes, to speak out and against racial slur, to offer compassion and support to all those in need. In America, we should understand that placing accusations will not cure the virus nor will it absolve our leadership’s incompetence in curbing the spread. A pandemic does not differentiate between the East and the West, the rich and the poor. Placing all blame upon one country and demanding reparations will only breed racism within the public eye. The world did not blame Ebola on Guinea nor the H1N1 flu on the U.S.; other countries did not demand reparations for the world-wide economic damage wrecked by the 2008 financial crisis, where evidence suggests its cause to be largely catalyzed by subprime mortgage-backed securities in the U.S.

The damage and suffering caused by COVID-19 pandemic have been harrowing and unprecedented, but everyone is under the same threat. In China, preventing Chinese people abroad from returning to their home country creates national divide that harms the progress of returning life to normalcy. And even if some in the U.S. refuse to acknowledge the "sacrifice and action" by the Chinese leadership, pointing back the fingers will only fuel the tensions between the two countries.

The people who feel more confused coming out of the events of the pandemic and the sensational media headlines are the 1.5 generation Chinese Americans, broadly speaking, who feel like the two countries that they love the most have turned on them. People in America believe we are shadows of the Chinese government; people in China think we turned our backs to a perfectly good country. A WeChat group emerged during quarantine for first and 1.5 generation Chinese Americans out of fear that prejudice will worsen following the pandemic. It states, “We must unite as Chinese people in America. It may be a dangerous world for us.”

In a way, we just simply don’t belong anywhere right now.

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