***Please note that some names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
During this season of holiday and winter gatherings, many I know are dreading interactions with family members and friends of friends whose opinions offend them. When I mentioned that I would be seeing a certain group of people, a friend told me she didn’t know how I would hold up since one of the bunch is a passionate Republican. “Will that be OK for you?” she asked. I looked at her, confused. “I mean, you know, since Jerry is so vocal about his views,” she elaborated, while shooting me a soulful, sympathetic look.
Her sympathy was misplaced. I wasn’t dreading this party at all. In fact, I very much enjoy getting a sense for opinions that differ from what I hear in my usual Boston-area bubble and online echo chamber. The world — even the world of my home country, the United States — is complex and multifaceted, with a wide range of people believing a wide range of things. My shock when Donald Trump won the presidency shows just how limiting it is to narrow your social circles to those whose opinions match yours. I’d heard from very few who weren’t utterly horrified by the brash New York businessman, so, when he won the election, it almost seemed surreal to me. In fact, it wasn’t surreal at all. It was a very real event spurred by very real people: people who, for the most part, I had never met or spoken with.
In today’s political climate, many in my circles feel that current conservatives are so out of line, so bigoted, so fearful of different cultures, so apt to resort to cruelty when implementing their ideals, that even friendly interaction with those who support any aspect of this administration is impossible to handle. In addition to the usual worries about seeing relatives who have been unkind to them on a personal level, many of my friends have also begun to fear seeing relatives whose political views strike them as being outrageous and even evil. They will look weeks ahead towards a planned family reunion, dreading seeing the face of that uncle, cousin, sibling, or parent whose views seem beyond the pale of basic decency. In a few cases, they have backed out entirely, cancelling plans that would have involved the potential to hear about ideas from a Trump supporter’s side.
I completely understand not wanting to see people who have been cruel to you in a personal way. I feel the same. That situation carries risk of painful, targeted attacks against you, and of facing comments that could quash your attempts to feel confident and valuable.
And I get that, in some cases, certain political views seem like a personal attack. An opinion that the chromosomes and genitalia you’re born with should always determine gender is personally offensive to someone who identifies in a way that conflicts with this notion. A stance suggesting that you should have to leave this country when you’ve made a life here would feel personally dangerous. Etc. If someone knows you well and is aware that expressing a certain view would be an attack on something very important to you on a personal level, I can imagine feeling deep hurt if the person shares these thoughts with you.
But, often, the opinions expressed do not resonate so personally with my friends’ situations. They represent the politically conservative speakers’ beliefs, insecurities, fears, life histories, and other factors that really have nothing to do with my aggrieved friends. In these cases, I must admit that I can’t relate to their desire to avoid these situations.
Weirdly enough, I can keep several opinions in my head simultaneously. Sometimes, I have a stance of my own; other times, I’m open to all I hear and have trouble deciding who I think is right in some objective sense. Even when I’m quite sure that I know what I believe, I can usually understand and even somewhat relate to opposing opinions.
Take the belief that there are two genders, and that chromosomal makeup and certain key physical characteristics determine who is male and who is female, not just in terms of physical sex, but in terms of psychological gender and self-identity. As someone who has never related to feminine clothing and who saw myself as a boy for a while when I was a child, I love that the discussion is opening up on this front in many circles. I’ve long bristled when people address a group I’m part of with “Hello Ladies” or “Hi Gals” because a central part of me does not see myself as a gal or a lady. At bottom, I see myself as biologically female but something else entirely — not male or female — when I consider who I am on the deepest level of soul.
And yet, I completely understand that it feels destabilizing to question the standard gender binary. I get that many social systems that have worked well for many people depend upon the notion that almost every human is either male or female, not just in terms of physiology, but in terms of self-definition… and that physical makeup matches this self-definition in a predictable way. I clearly see that many religious and social systems depend upon this conviction, and that questioning it could upset some delicate balances in terms of human interaction and social expectation.
So, even though I am personally outside the gender binary in some key ways, and have bristled against fundamental expectations for girls and women throughout my life, I can understand why someone would cling to the simple idea that there are males and females and we can easily tell one from the other through physical examination… and that the only exceptions to this notion are the rare intersex people who have key physical qualities of both males and females, or who lack any of these identifiers. I can also understand why someone might feel most comfortable keeping certain traditions as is: like segregating bathrooms based on physical sex. If I went to a gathering where someone was expressing beliefs along these lines, I could easily handle it, and in fact would find it interesting and even helpful, because it would offer a perspective I don’t often hear these days.
I live in an area where the latest developments along these lines often take off quickly and establish a “correct” view that any “educated” person would espouse. Those who disagree are seen as ignorant and offensive. I prefer reaching out beyond my bubble and getting a sense for what all kinds of people beyond my geographic area and educational background are thinking. I believe that all kinds of people’s perspectives are worth considering. If I do feel strongly about an issue, I’ll never change my opponents’ minds if I withhold the courtesy of respect for and openness to their own convictions.
I’m thinking now of someone I know well who has expressed a preference for white neighbors, while the proportion of racial minorities in his area seems to be growing. Occasionally, he will say things that would surely offend the minorities in question. At times, the comments offend me as well. But, rather than ostracize him, I choose to question him about his beliefs and preconceptions: “Why would you prefer white neighbors? Do you think they’re more likely to be nice or honest or quiet or some other trait that you like in the people around you? Are you worried about property values?”
Then, I listen to his answers, which he provides openly because I have shown a genuine interest in what he has to say. I don’t attack; I simply listen, and respond with questions and comments when I have them. If he says that white people are more likely to be good neighbors than other groups, I remind him of all the crappy white neighbors various people in our circles have endured. If he mentions fears over property values, I ask him to explore why he thinks that a high proportion of racial minorities would cause them to drop… always being mindful that his fears might be valid, given widespread attitudes and prejudices. I also point out that, while some potential home buyers may prefer predominantly white areas, others see racial diversity as a strongly positive attribute. My friend always listens quietly when I offer alternate approaches. I can tell that he’s mulling it all over and possibly shifting his views just a bit.
I learn from him, and he learns from me. There are no PC expectations between us; we simply talk. He often admits that my points are valid and begins to express a lot more openness towards the full range of people he meets.
Once, I got him to reframe a situation where many people in a neighborhood we were exploring didn’t speak English. “They live in this country; why don’t they learn English?” he moaned. And you know… I understood his frustration. Our lives would have been much more pleasant right then if someone had been able to understand our questions. But I reminded him that his own parents didn’t speak English when they arrived in this country. By the time he was born, they were fluent in English, but there was a period when they were immigrants trying to make their way among Americans who spoke an unfamiliar tongue.
At that point, he was silent. I could tell he got it. We continued having trouble finding an English speaker, but he didn’t complain. If I had yelled at him for being intolerant of new immigrants, he wouldn’t have learned a thing, and I would have created nothing but tension.
But why should I spend time with someone who tends towards this sort of view? Many I know have given up everyone in their lives whose opinions seem offensive. My answer is simple: people are complex. Particular life experiences have shaped us all… and have pushed some people into bigoted impressions for reasons that we could understand if we got to know them well. Someone who is extremely and genuinely kind towards his friends might have negative impulses towards certain groups, or towards behaviors that feel fine to me and to many others. If I am close with someone for personal reasons, I am not going to throw that away because our opinions clash. If I did that, we would both lose a friend and we would both lose opportunities to learn.
If we dislike some of the ideas that are brewing in our country and throughout the world, we should not abandon those who espouse them to their own separate haven. We need to speak to people and be open to their honest responses. And we need to jump off of our high horses and acknowledge the possibility that, sometimes, ideas that might seem offensive to us stem from understandable places, like fears about economic stability or basic personal safety. Through all-around openness and respect, we can all expand our mindsets, and hopefully work towards a world of broader understanding among the full range of souls who roam this country and the world.
Of course there are limits. If someone you know is obsessed with hatred towards particular groups, or refuses ever to hear your take on issues even when you approach conversation with a genuine interest in hearing their own views, discussion may be futile. But many seem to toss out relationships because of more minor ideological differences. Even if hanging onto a feeling of closeness seems impossible with someone because of their opinions, it still could be interesting to hear their thoughts. It’s truly not fair to fight against ideas when you’ve only paid attention to people who oppose them. If you listen, seriously, to those who support any given opinion, you will be able to sense how it might feel to hold that view. If you still disagree with it, you can do so from a place of deeper understanding. There’s something ludicrous about arguing against a point of view when you’ve never truly listened to someone who supports it. It would be like deciding that Boston is a much better city than New York because you’ve talked to many people who love Boston and hate New York, but have never heard from anyone who takes the reverse stance.
If you only communicate respectfully with people who think as you do, your influence on others’ minds will be minuscule; you’ll be nothing more than a cog in an echo chamber. And, perhaps worse, you’ll never give yourself the chance to grow in the key ways that only happen when one human being truly listens to someone who has come to very different conclusions. Conclusions, ideally, are springboards to new, richer ideas. None of us has the mind of God; we all have room to expand our visions. But this can only happen when we approach the world like curious explorers willing to consider and respect a wide range of ideas as we move towards new understanding.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.