Illustration | Mia Carnevale
How do we connect with people who do not share our political beliefs?
I had never really thought about my own perception of “outsiders” until I visited Atlanta, Georgia. It was my first time in the Southern United States. My knowledge of the South had mainly consisted of the scraps of colloquialisms I picked up from books (namely, Huck Finn). It was only upon travelling to Atlanta that two revelations dawned on me. First, that I knew next to nothing about the history and culture of the modern-day South and second, that I could identify as an educated and progressive person and still hold very damaging opinions about other people.
It is so easy for city-dwelling Canadians to cultivate a one-dimensional and scrutinizing opinion of Southerners. An unwillingness to budge from this type of mentality can be dangerous, especially within the parameters of our highly politicized world. There’s certainly no dispute over the importance of voicing our political concerns, but it’s when we build walls around those with different beliefs that issues of polarization emerge.
In Atlanta I became friends with a woman named Susanne. She is 20 years old and comes from a town just outside of Dallas. She serves in the army. She is a fervent non-denominational Christian with a tattooed cross on her left wrist. She is married. She is a registered Republican, but a proud Libertarian. She is unwaveringly pro-life. She dismisses ethical and environmental reasons behind vegetarianism and veganism. She’s a firm believer in gender-based chivalry. In her Facebook profile picture, she stares defiantly ahead with a gun in her hand, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “I don’t trust the government.” In fact, she owns several handguns. Susanne is a major proponent of the Second Amendment. She told me a lot of gun-related stories. For example, one time, she and her friends played a game called “Firework or Gunshot?” on the Fourth of July. Another time, after a firecracker prank gone wrong, she pulled a gun on her next-door neighbour and his two-year-old infant. Her neighbour drew his own gun in response. When they realized what had happened, they had a good laugh about it.
Many of you may find this information incredibly distasteful. I know I was initially caught off guard and turned off by what she told me. I could not fathom why her values were so radically different from my own. I caught myself thinking: She must be one of those redneck millennials who voted for Trump. I bet she’s a racist and a homophobe. Guess it’s true what they say after all.
And I almost left it at that. Most of me wanted to shake my head and call her a dumb Southerner, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I wanted to get to know her better.
I wish I could tell you that Susanne had some unusual upbringing or that she had experienced a traumatic event that forever changed her outlook in life (she hadn’t). I wish I could say that after I explained why I disagreed with her opinions that she had some major realization and sought to correct all of her ways (she didn’t).
The only interesting point I can offer is that she’s never left the United States. In fact, rarely has she left the South. Susanne had a sheltered upbringing. She grew up surrounded by people who looked the same, dressed the same, and perpetuated the same ideas. I knew firsthand what that was like.
I grew up in communities where the majority of people were socially conservative Chinese immigrants. My family was pretty close-minded and condescending when it came to matters of race, sex, and religion. I can count the number of Black kids who went to my elementary school on one hand. I didn’t meet a Jewish person until I was in high school. It was only after I began to travel that my mindset changed course.
While I don’t consider myself to be as politically active as I should be, I would place myself somewhere on the left side of the political spectrum. It is disgusting how prejudiced I was at first, even if I did not express it out loud. I allowed myself to be blinded by pretentious and ignorant presumptions. I let myself give up on a human being from the get go.
Truth be told, I don’t think I’m the only “educated” and “progressive” liberal who has almost given up on someone with different views.
In “Song of Myself”, Walt Whitman expresses the challenges of conveying what it means to be American in one poem. I finally understand what he means. It is impossible for me to depict a complete representation of my friend in this piece of writing. Whitman’s famous line, “I contain multitudes”, rings true. It was only when I really listened to Susanne that I realized she was more than a stereotype. During the worst moments of Hurricane Harvey, my friend volunteered day and night to transport people to areas of refuge and to distribute food and water. She was a paralegal specialist with the U.S. Army JAG Corps. She is proudly married to a Mexican man. She enthusiastically endorses the “Taking a Knee” movement in the NFL. Her favourite characters on Modern Family are Cam and Mitchell. She advocates for sex education and contraception. She is eloquent and confident. She doesn’t take shit from anyone. Her sense of humour is impeccable. She is a complex and beautiful person.
After the massacre in Las Vegas that claimed the lives of over 50 people and wounded nearly 500 others, Susanne still sees the right to bear arms as a crucial American right to uphold. She maintains the opinion that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. I vehemently disagree. I stand firmly behind the argument that there is a direct relationship between how easy it is to acquire guns and the prevalence of gun-related casualties in the United States. Do I think her unrelenting advocacy in favour of firearms only worsens the situation in the States? I absolutely do. Are there still other things about her that I admire tremendously? There remain plenty.
For better or worse, we live in a society where every facet of our lives is politicized. It is too easy to strip people of their humanity and reduce them to artificial labels and binary oppositions. It is too tempting to turn up our collars and stick out our tongues at those who argue ideas with which we disagree. If we want those who are politically opposed to us to change their ways, the worst thing we can do is to vilify them. We must remember that anyone can be prejudiced regardless of where they lie on the political spectrum. I urge you to think twice before shutting out those who are different. We forget that living in a democracy means living with a multitude of perspectives. Sometimes, those perspectives contradict our own. The best thing we can do is to tell our stories and listen to the stories of others with open minds and open hearts. More often than not, we will learn that there is so much more to people than their political views.