Lack of political diversity on island creates echo chamber
By Isabelle Spence and Mari Kanagy, Co-Content Editors
Vashon is home to an eclectic, homogenous group of people. From north to south, many believe Vashon houses one political community that shares the same opinions and perspectives. But is this true?
While each individual community member has a varying set of experiences that set them apart from the rest, the statistics for Vashon show broad strokes. According to Data USA, 91 percent of the community is white. Best News reports that nearly 70 percent identify as liberal, an overwhelming majority of the population.
These similarities throughout the Vashon community often lead to the assumption that everyone holds the same opinions. However, this simply reinforces a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“The more you restrict diverse perspectives, the more likely you are to reinforce your own view and augment any pre-existing biases,” island psychologist and PhD holder Valerie Harrington said. “So to the extent that people on Vashon restrict themselves to a Vashon-centric experience, they’re more likely to reinforce what they’re already thinking.”
Harrington likens the self-selection of one’s community to social media. People often view only the perspectives that they agree with. Harrington believes this can contribute to oversight and an underdevelopment in social awareness.
“If you’re mostly talking to people who view themselves [within] a bubble, then it’s going to reinforce that idea, but if you spend more time talking to people with other perspectives, you’re going to think differently,” Harrington said.
For those in the majority, the current political arena on Vashon works well.
“I believe I am able to function well within the school because my beliefs are widely accepted by the majority of my peers and teachers,” senior Emily Levin said.
To many, this idea shows that the majority viewpoint feels more accepted and comfortable at school.
“Being in the political majority definitely makes me more eager to express my beliefs,” senior Matilda Stricherz said.
While a homogenous community may work well for some, it oftens fails to promote the ideas of any minority voice. On Vashon, this divide is seen most clearly in politics. Only 20 percent of the population votes Republican, which means few people accept their conservative values.
“I think whenever you have a particularly strong voice, politically, then people with other perspectives are more likely to stay quiet,” Harrington said. “I would say that there are more alternative perspectives on Vashon than people realize because those voices are quieter by comparison.”
This lack of attention can lead to the oversight of some opinions.
“If you have some groups that are quiet and keep their views to themselves, then the louder group is more likely to make an assumption that others agree with them, which then may create a broader view that we all have the same view,” Harrington said.
Some students and alumna feel that they’ve stifled their views because of Vashon’s intolerance toward conservative viewpoints.
“Because I am a conservative who grew up on Vashon, I tend to feel very isolated,” Kate Lande, a 2018 VHS graduate, said. “I hesitate to share my political views with anyone because I am afraid of negative backlash. Vashon doesn’t like conservatives and isn’t shy about saying it. For this reason, I’m very reluctant to share what I believe, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable not doing so.”
This perspective can grow particularly problematic within the school. Many school administrations encourage the separation of politics and education, and prefer teachers to refrain from showing political bias in class. However, many high school students report that teachers speak very frankly about their opinions during discussions of politics in the classroom. During these conversations, many teachers — authority figures — show blatant democratic leanings.
Students who identify with conservative politics often feel stereotyped by their peers, which can cause a divide within the student body.
“I was alone most of the [time at the high school],” conservative and former VHS student Collin Protzeller said. “Most people wouldn’t even talk to me because they assumed my beliefs.”
Protzeller wasn’t the only student to feel this way; many other students have shared similar experiences. This has led to a feeling of isolation for many conservative students.
“I never joined discussions on [politics],” Lande said. “There are many people who seem to think that because you’re conservative you’re automatically racist, homophobic, transphobic, and uneducated …. I’m none of those things but people assume it of me simply because of my political views.”
Lande has since left the island for college, and is currently attending Gonzaga University in Spokane. She feels that her new academic community is a little more accepting.
“Having left Vashon, I feel more comfortable sharing my political beliefs, but only slightly,” Lande said. “People at my college seem to be more open-minded and mature when it comes to politics.”
Harrington speculates that this phenomenon, both in the classroom and the real world, leaves many conservative islanders feeling they have to keep their opinions to themselves as a product of social pressure. This leads to feelings of disempowerment or disenfranchisement.
“It can feel like there isn’t space for you, so it’s something certainly to be aware of … If you’re the loudest person in the room, [you should notice whether] that’s because … nobody else wants to speak or if you’re taking up all the space,” Harrington said.
Harrington believes that being aware of the problem, and working to fix it, will help both parties in the end.
“What we find, psychologically, is that people learn and grow well in the context of relationships,” Harrington said. “That being said, it’s to our benefit or our psychological health to continue to make new connections.”
This debate is currently occurring on college campuses across the country. According Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Coddling of The American Mind,” many students do not want to be exposed to viewpoints they disagree with, believing opposing opinions are potential triggers.
However, others have pointed out that protecting someone from negative experiences and opinions is often detrimental to their mental health. The book emphasized that adversity can be a positive factor if it leads to growth.
According to Harrington, having a set of diverse experiences can be helpful later in life, even when applying for college.
“Colleges are very enthusiastic supporters of studying abroad and volunteering in the community and other kinds of exchange programs where they promote going to another environment, having a different experience, and bringing it back and sharing it,” Harrington said.
Harrington added that a student’s willingness to learn new viewpoints adds to their acceptance of other ideas and their diversity of thought.
“For a kid who is ready and interested in embracing change and difference, I think that transition could be a very powerful experience,” Harrington said.
As for those who still reside on Vashon, some believe the community must change the way it interacts with each other. In today’s political climate, many feel that divisive issues have created a highly polarized society, one that destroys potential connections between opposing viewpoints.
“To begin with, people get too attached to political sides, which creates [an] inability to truly listen to the other side, prohibiting us … [from] hav[ing] productive conversations,” Levin said.
Students recognize these problems within the school, as well as the community at large, but change is often difficult to initiate.
“The main issue is that people on Vashon don’t know how to have political debates or productive political conversations,” Stricherz said. “Lots of political discussions here are very self-congratulatory in nature and that needs to change.
“We need to listen to and understand each other,” she said.