My New Year’s resolution: Getting engaged

Not in the sense of changing the relationship between me and my [nonexistent] significant other. The kind of engagement I’m going for is a change in the relationship between my mind and the outside world.

I share enough of my opinions, I think, on stuff like what food I like and what I want to do next summer — what I don’t discuss as much are my opinions on current events and the politico-social environment. I mean, I read about them online kind of a lot, and I listen to people talk about their views. I think about what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, but I rarely ever post my responses or say much of anything back. Partly it’s because of laziness and lack of time. Partly it’s because of lack of confidence.

I feel like as soon as I say “lack of confidence,” some people might think I mean that I lack confidence in my ability to understand things or to contribute effectively, but I don’t, exactly. I lack confidence in the value of the discourse itself.

This stems largely from the fact that, in an effort to be more educated and open-minded, I started reading a variety of right-wing websites during the Obama-Romney presidential campaign. One thing I noticed is that each side  — liberal and conservative — tends to ignore the other’s stated beliefs, favoring the theory that those beliefs are simply a fig leaf for destructive motivations, whether conscious or subconscious. For instance, assuming you’re a lefty, there’s a good chance you think that extreme trust in the free market is simply evidence of having been treated well by it as an individual (or of irrationally identifying with the individuals who have). But did you know that a lot of small-gov proponents think that our support for expanded public programs is intended to get more people, i.e. the people employed by those programs, personally tied to the existence of a larger government, so that all those people will forever vote Democrat? Have you ever examined yourself for such a subconscious motivation? The right wing’s theory on that may be completely wrong, but if we never address their analysis of us, how can we expect them to ever think through our analysis of them?) 

I’m a college student and my two roommates this past semester were conservative or libertarian. While we are friends, we tended not to talk much about politics. One day, though, one of my roommates and I got onto the topic of the union activity in the Hostess ordeal. I told my roommate that while I wouldn’t make a solid judgment on Hostess because I didn’t know the details of that particular case, my general response to such situations is to side with the union, and I tried to explain my reasons for that. She told me what she knew about the case and how that led to her anti-union opinion. The conversation ended as amicably as such conversations can, but something that really stuck with me was that my roommate made a comment (directed not at me but at someone who’d behaved rudely) that before people talk about issues, they should know all the facts.

This isn’t a unique statement, by any means, so it wasn’t originality that made it stick with me. It was that the conversation underscored to me just how incredibly inadequate an approach that is to bridging the left-right divide in the US (and any other deep ideological division). First of all, in most cases, unless you are an insider, you will never ever know all the relevant facts, and neither will the person you’re arguing with. Looking at the Hostess situation, for example, a lot of the negotiations between the union leaders and the higher-ups took place behind closed doors. Objectively speaking, we have no way of knowing to what extent the higher-ups’ declaration that the company would go under without the union leaders giving in was real and to what extent it was political posturing.

I’m guessing that most readers of this blog, though, think the political posturing was a bigger part. That’s because most of us are more familiar with the labor side of the story, through reading theory ourselves or through reading reporting informed by such theory. This is the second, and probably bigger issue: it’s about more than just facts. It’s impossible for human beings to interpret facts without having some sort of schema by which to organize them, some sort of lens through which to see them. And assuming that all you need to judge a situation is to know the facts, then either you don’t understand this or you ignore it willfully — a sign of naivety, hubris, or some combination of the two. Either way, if you try to have a dialogue with someone who has a completely different worldview and you try just to talk about facts, you aren’t going to get much of anywhere. You’re going to analyze that person’s opinions through your own paradigm. You’re going to think that they’re either stupid or ignorant or holding up a fig leaf to hide their ill intentions.

The thing is, I believe in an objective truth, an objective morality. I don’t think every opinion is equally legitimate. I do think it’s possible that some theories really are just fig leaves. But I don’t think that that automatically gives me the right to assume that any given idea is an example of that phenomenon without first trying to understand what people of various viewpoints think of it and why.

I want to engage with more than just right-versus-left issues too, and I think the approach I just described could apply to more or less anything, to varying extents. But the right-versus-left thing is what really got me down the past few months, so that’s what I’ve been reflecting on. It would be nice if I could end by telling you that the reason I decided to try to re-engage was that something had recently given me confidence in the whole ordeal. Nothing has. The real reason is that it’s a new year, and I’m tired of being quiet, and of being lazy and not managing my time well, and for Feministing anyway, even though I’ve only posted here once before, more than a year ago, I somehow missed that feeling of community.

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