Saturday, November 06, 2004

My American feet, your American shoes

"I will fight tirelessly to help pass laws protecting the right to life. Why, you might ask? Because fetuses are people, members of this society, and it is the government's responsibility to watch out for them equally as for others. What sick sort of defect causes someone to want to take away the right to life?"

Ok, don't have a heart attack. I don't actually believe anything I just wrote. Now humor me, and try this simple exercise. Take the first paragraph, replace "life" with "marry", and replace "fetuses" with "gays".

"I will fight tirelessly to help pass laws protecting the right to marry. Why, you might ask? Because gays are people, members of this society, and it is the government's responsibility to watch out for them equally as for others. What sick sort of defect causes someone to want to take away the right to marry?"

Breathe deeply. I am not equating the issues surrounding abortion with those surrounding gay marriage. I am, however, trying to point out that liberals and conservatives in this country might share more than they think. At the top of the list: self-righteousness.

During the past few years, and especially during the past few days, I have heard a lot of self-righteousness. At least 75% of it has come out of my own mouth. "How can there be so many red states on the electoral map?" "Why would any thinking person vote that stupid liar Bush back into office?" Be honest -- who here saw this tidbit implying a link between IQ and party affiliation, and felt superior about it? I did. I took one look at those statistics and said "that explains it."

Jig called me on it, telling me that "we need to stop being such smug, self-righteous zealots." On one hand, I view righteous indignation as one of the most useful tools at my disposal. Laptop? Check. Cell phone? Check. Righteous indignation? It's in my backpack. It drives me to work for change. It's a natural consequence of my beliefs. It's a human necessity.

But on the other hand, I am starting to see Jig's point. At times, there might be something to gain by toning it down. Do we really think that the millions and millions of conservative Bush supporters are all idiots? Could it be that easy? Is there another framework we could use to understand the ideological opposition? Yes, and it is a less self-righteous one.

I am a liberal. I grew up in an severely over-privileged suburb of a huge city in one of the blue states. My family was not religious. I was raised to read books, go to the symphony, and travel the world. I believe in a woman's right to choose. Let's ask: how has my life story affected this belief? And no cheating. No appealing to abstract notions like philosophy and morality. Ok, well for one, I had no authority figure sharing anti-choice views with me. Also, the diversity of the city nearby brought with it a diversity of human experience. In other words, while my family was not exactly discussing abortion at the dinner table, I was at least aware that it was something happening nearby.

Now let's think about some right-to-life supporters. What might their life stories be? Maybe they were raised in religious families, and frequently heard anti-choice argumentation at church and at home. Maybe they were raised in small or remote locales and never heard of Planned Parenthood. Or alternatively, maybe they had friends who had abortions performed by incompetent practitioners, and this created a bad association.

Now let's personalize it. Pretend you have lived in a small town your entire life. Really pretend. You grew up attending a school that has a lively abstinence education program. You have attended religious services every week since birth. Most of the social functions in your town revolve around the church. You know many people with large families. Your community is low in crime, including rape. How likely do you think you are to be pro-choice? Do you still feel like a self-righteous liberal? (I still do, but I am probably not trying hard enough yet.)

Crucial sidenotes: I do not mean to generalize here. To be clear, I am not equating pro-life views and religion, or pro-choice views and atheism. I am not saying all pro-lifers are from tiny towns in middle America or the south. Stated more generally, I am not claiming that political and moral views depend solely on environment. Our values depend on a complex interaction of biology, psychology, geography, sociology, economics, and more. I am simply asking very specific questions: can I write any story in my head which would explain conservative viewpoints, and can I refrain from judging them quite so damn much? And finally, I don't really think that conducting thought experiments like the ones above is the same as actually living someone else's life. Far from it.

It is so tempting for me to look at the people in all of those red states and say "You know what? Those poor immoral idiots can't step outside of their own, insular small-town lives enough to understand why marriage rights are important." And I promise you, many of those red people are pointing at me, saying "That poor immoral idiot can't step outside of his own sinful big-city life enough to understand why every we need to protect unborn humans." The huge geographical, economic, and cultural gaps in this country create a society with huge gaps in life experiences and values.

What's to be done? I won't lessen or change my pro-choice, pro-marriage-rights, pro-gun-control, pro-social-spending, pacifist convictions. I won't strive to agree with the ideological opposition. And I certainly won't claim that trivial thought experiments will cure the country's ills. But I will remember that we live in a nation full of zealots in a polarized time. I am going to try to exercise my brain, to help contribute to a climate where ideological opponents can start to have some meaningful dialogue. I think it's a crucial preliminary step.

So I decided to make today a walk-in-someone-else's-shoes theme day. What did I do?

I ran a training session for new mentors in the LGBT mentoring program I volunteer for. What does this have to do with the theme? The training included role-playing exercises where the new mentors had to act out various problematic situations their mentees might encounter.

I spent a few minutes browsing The Free Republic, which is a conservative news forum. Talk about walking into the lion's den. I read some of the posted comments and tried very hard to have only 93% of my usual disdain for the views I saw espoused.

What did you do today?


At 8:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is always a good idea to think about things from the opponent's perspective-or to try to understand why someone else is rabid about the political opinion they hold. . .red or blue. I personally do not care for rabid anything, dogs, republicans, or even democrats. I think that is one reason no one talks about politics. That plus we were taught not to ever discuss religion or politics. Whassup with that? What can be more thought provoking? More enlightening? More healing.

Recently I had a very serious discussion with a relative of mine. We did not hold the same political beliefs which is very wierd since we were raised in the same households, same parents, same locations and economic situations. But...we disagree politically. For once I did discuss politics-pleading with this relative to please wake up and see how important it was to be blue. Well, she explained her reasons for the political position she holds and I understand her position. I even can go so far as to say she really has no choice given the religious beliefs she has. But now I know what to do to educate her so in time she will make a decision weighing the pro's and con's of each option based on more, and more accurate, information than she has at this time. It's a start. Dialogue is so important. Determining where we can agree is critical. Without some common ground, we will never move forward toward resolutions of any of our problems. I'm going to try that walking in someone else's political shoes exercise and I do not think it is silly at all.

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My lord I love you. A lot.


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