When I graduated high school I thought I had it all figured out. I’ve always been opinionated, and after a social studies class called “senior issues” helped me refine my political stances, I couldn’t imagine the idea of budging on any issue. I’m not a fan of political labels in general, but if you had to label me anything, I would be moderately conservative.
In reality, I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal, but until a libertarian candidate breaks into mainstream politics there isn’t a candidate who embodies those ideals. I’ve always held similar views to my parents and never saw an issue with that. It wasn’t much different in my high school; I could give a presentation on fiscal conservatism and know that even if someone didn’t agree, they probably didn’t care enough to argue.
The extent to which my opinions were challenged growing up was my dad playing devil’s advocate when we watched the news together. If I would remark “I can’t understand how anyone can actually believe that,” he would assume the opposing stance, and we would discuss (read: debate) the reasons someone could have for forming that opinion. Don’t get me wrong, those friendly debates still ended with our dog hiding under the coffee table from our passionate (read: loud) arguments, but it’s still impossible to fully understand the root of someone’s beliefs if they aren’t the one you’re asking. What he did teach me was how to form an argument, how to challenge the arguments of others using fact and reason, and that the worst outcome of a debate was simply failing to compromise.
Since joining The Daily a few years ago, I have been given the unique opportunity to argue with my peers. This isn’t a class-mandated activity; a teacher didn’t assign me an issue and tell me what side to argue in a two-page paper. I actually get to sit down across from a real person who I know has an opinion they hold onto just as firmly as I do mine, but who fundamentally disagrees with me on every reason behind it. They often come from different backgrounds than I do, bringing with them different experiences and biases that have shaped how they think about the world. Seeing and hearing the reasons behind the formation of a belief helps me recognize how my own history, experiences, and biases formed what I believe.
It is important to remember that in debates like these, neither party is correct. Winning is not the end goal. I’m not going to explain my reasons behind believing in smaller government and suddenly swing someone to the other side of a political spectrum. What I can do, however, is listen. When your adversary points out a flaw in your stance you can either present a counter argument, further solidifying why you have the opinion in the first place, or you could learn something that makes you take a step back and realize there might be more to the story than you initially thought. By having an open dialogue with those whose opinions you can’t wrap your mind around, you’ll wind up understanding them, or at the very least empathizing with them. We seem to view challenges to our opinions as undesirable because they have the potential to bring us discomfort, but there is so much to learn if we can look past our egos and recognize that our opinions hold no more validity than the opinions of others.
If I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to discover the group of talented, caring, and passionate individuals that I call co-workers, I would never have had any of these conversations that have led me to a better understanding of my own world views, as well as an understanding of what causes others think differently than I do. This empathy will prevent me from judging the character of others based on their political leanings, a trait that seems to be wildly overlooked today.
If everyone in the world took a few moments to listen to an idea they don’t agree with, we might be able buffer our hyperpolarized culture. If we can stop viewing our opinions as the absolute truth and rather as an outcome of our own personal experiences, we might see less violence in the context of contrasting ideas. We could have debates about immigration laws without labels of racism, and we could have discussions about political correctness without cries of hypersensitivity and coddling.
Unfortunately, this isn’t how our society operates, and it certainly isn’t how our university operates. Maybe it’s the political climate of Seattle, maybe it’s because colleges are historically liberal environments, but it seems there is a very clearly defined “right” and “wrong” way to look at the world here at the UW. The correct opinions are those of progressive beliefs, and the incorrect opinions are those of conservative ideals. This notion that one side is definitively good, right, and kind, and that the other side is evil, uneducated, and wrong will lead us away from productive debating and straight toward attacks on character.
It is also important to remember that absolute rights and wrongs do exist, and that alienating someone because of their race, gender, or identity is unacceptable. By the same token, it is also unacceptable to alienate someone because they have an elephant rather than a donkey sticker on their laptop. Just because you don’t agree with a political opinion doesn’t mean your adversary necessarily endorses something that is wrong. If you believe someone is saying something ignorant, provide evidence that shows them the contrary. If all you hear coming out of their mouth is anger, focus on what they are saying rather than how they are saying it. And please, dear God, have these conversations in person rather than hidden behind a computer screen. Turning politics into an emotional battle between good and evil rather than the exchange of differing ideas for the success of our country will only continue to further polarize our nation. When I look to the future I hope to see a world of acceptance and compromise, not polarity and hate.
Reach writer Katie Sturtevant at email@example.com. Twitter: @katiestuuu