By Joseph Marasciullo
Last summer, Phillip Sharp (C’18), a politics major at Sewanee, was selected to attend the 2016 College Convention at Dominican College. The focus of this convention was to select 150 delegates from across the nation, with the purpose of “facilitating discussions with fellow students on their campuses in order to encourage students to share their perspectives on important issues.”
What that convoluted doublespeak basically means is that the students were meant to go back to their colleges and start political discussion clubs of their own. While at this convention, Sharp was inspired not by the speakers or the panel leaders, but by the intense culture of indifference and polarization perpetuated by the delegates themselves.
The “us vs. them” attitude was everywhere, but Sharp recalled that the most distressing part of the convention was when the group watched a short documentary on a woman dying of cancer who refused any government medical aid in accordance with her politically conservative beliefs. Between her claims of not wanting to be a burden, a group of delegates in the room erupted in laughter. They thought it ridiculous for her to not have accepted the government money, and showed no remorse for her untimely death.
This outburst was so awful for Sharp to hear that he “became physically ill” and had to leave the room to throw up. He couldn’t understand how people could so coldly laugh at someone who died of cancer, or how someone could so marginalize someone’s political views and turn them into a joke.
Upon returning to Sewanee, Sharp was inspired to create the Interpolitical Council. Starting out, his goal was to establish a club that would be open to people across the entire spectrum of political belief, and a platform of political debate similar to that of the Oxford Student Union at Oxford College, with well-moderated debate and debaters that respect each other’s views instead of meeting them with mocking laughter or divisive anger.
“You turn on the Oxford Student Union, and they have two writers from The Sun, a conservative newspaper,” Sharp remarked. “And they’re having a debate about the offensive (language), yet everyone is civil about it. No one pulled themselves out; they had a real discussion.”
Civil discussions like this are Sharp’s goal. For him, it’s not all about the politics; it’s more about making sure that people from opposing sides of the political spectrum can still be friends after heated debates. To accomplish this goal, the Interpolitical Council has reached out to the major political groups on campus to include them in their weekly activities.
“We talk to the College Republicans, College Democrats, Young Democratic Socialists, and No Labels, and we invited them all to our weekly meetings,” Sharp said. “Every person has points, but if all everyone does is react to everyone else, then nobody gets anywhere.”
Sharp likened this idea of staunch polarization to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when President Kennedy, only one year into his tenure as President, had to stop the two most ideologically opposed nations in the world from blowing each other to smithereens, while neither side wanted to back down.
“You see, (aide to President Kennedy, Kenny) O’Donnell, wanted to keep up a scary face the whole time, he wasn’t giving an inch, and neither were the Russians. The two powers kept moving closer and closer, getting nothing done except scaring the hell out of their respective nations,” Sharp explained. “It wasn’t until President Kennedy told off his advisor and decided to just talk to the Russians that anyone on either side finally blinked.”
The weekly meetings are just the beginning. Sharp’s plans for the future include a barbeque with all the political clubs, town hall meetings, and eventually inviting speakers to campus. He also plans on growing the club significantly, as it is currently going strong with ten members.