Last year, I wrote a mini research paper on the importance of protecting free speech on college campuses. Though I’m pretty liberal on most political issues, I surprised my teacher (who still teases me for being “progressive” today) by taking the position that colleges should never disinvite speakers or attempt, in any way, to censor or ban “hate speech,” which is a term that is incredibly vague and difficult to define. I talked a lot in the paper about the importance of doing a whole lot of listening to what the “other side” has to say, both in order to open your mind to other points of view and learn how best to refute arguments from those who disagree with you. I’ve always prided myself on being open to a wide variety of different ideas and different kinds of people.
I think that, today, we live in an era of “identity politics.” We spend so much time separating ourselves into small, neat boxes that we tend to forget the things that bring us together. I absolutely support minorities and other oppressed groups banding together to try and solve the unique issues that face them, but I do have an issue with the groups of friends that are composed entirely of people with the same beliefs and identities that I see at school, and the “I would never be friends with a Trump supporter” that I see on the internet. It’s not just democrats; I’ve seen a number of memes made by conservatives on the internet that convey the same ideas, but about liberals. While I think it’s natural to be drawn to those that are like us – it’s safe, and comfortable – I also think it’s problematic.
Sure, politics can bring people together. I’ve definitely bonded with a lot of my friends over political issues that we agree on and feel passionately about. But I also have friends from the other side of the spectrum – people that I bonded with over school stress or sports or any number of other things. Even if I knew they were staunchly conservative, I took a chance and have ended up with a few close friends as a result. I’m not perfect, of course, and I’ve been guilty in the past of letting political issues strain my relationships (or prevent me from forming new friendships). I’m trying, though, to do so less and less often.
When we don’t open our hearts to those that are different from us, we close ourselves off from meaningful relationships and the chance that the “other side” will surprise us. There’s someone in a few of my classes who is a firm Trump supporter and active member of Young Republicans, but she’s done nothing but prove to me time and time again that she is a kind, inclusive, and overall wonderful person. She treats those who are different from her with a great amount of respect, and, honestly, I think we could all learn from her.
Now, of course, there are circumstances that prevent this idealistic vision of every friend group being filled with people from all walks of life who see the world in all different ways. As pointed out in this Washington Post article, Democrats tend to live clustered together in urban areas – like San Francisco or New York – where they are isolated from people on the other side of the political spectrum. I’m not suggesting that anyone should all should completely abandon their old ways and actively try to seek out people on the opposite side of the political spectrum. I think changing your mindset is a long, slow process. Next time you’re in class and see a girl with a pro-life/pro-choice sticker that you don’t agree with, ask her how she’s doing anyway, or ask her why she believes what she does. Next time that you’re tempted to hide an old high school friend who has started posting political posts that you disagree with on Facebook, send them a message to reconnect instead. Next time you hear that a strongly conservative speaker is coming to campus, go to the lecture and listen to what they have to say, and leave if it’s truly offensive to join the protests that will inevitably happening nearby.
Like a lot of things in life, bridging the divide starts with baby steps.