the elephant (and donkey) in the room

Common measures of diversity are diversity in race, gender, religion, and political ideology.

Do you want to know something a little scary?

Right now, if you were to give every American a choice between hiring two equally qualified people, differing only on one key metric, more Americans would employ the person who aligns with them politically than using any other measure of difference. The study, from researchers at Stanford and Princeton, found that while social norms constrain the way individuals might act toward a person of another race, there are no constraints governing the way we think, speak about or act toward people with opposing political views–because we’re almost taught to see them as despicable.

I apply this to myself loosely and understand why: choosing the person who aligns with me politically feels safe; it feels like we would “get” each other despite all other seen or unseen differences.

I heard a similar sentiment in church a couple weeks ago: it’s a quote from David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, from the September 2003 issue of the Atlantic. His article “People Like Us” talks about how “we all pay lip service to the melting pot, but we really prefer the congealing pot:”

Maybe somewhere in this country there is a truly diverse neighborhood in which a black Pentecostal minister lives next to a white anti-globalization activist, who lives next to an Asian short-order cook, who lives next to a professional golfer, who lives next to a postmodern-literature professor and a cardiovascular surgeon. But I have never been to or heard of that neighborhood.

In this congealing pot, much more common than the melting pot, we find “people who make strenuous efforts to be with people who are like themselves.”

You know what I imagine could help along that imaginary, truly diverse neighborhood on its way to neighborly harmony, conflict-free block parties and everyone paying their HOA fees on time? A consensus on political ideology. Wouldn’t it help the Asian short-order cook and cardiovascular surgeon get along if the entire neighborhood was all in for Bernie this year, big proponents of his socialist leanings? Or wouldn’t it help the black Pentecostal minister and the postmodern-literature professor get along if the whole neighborhood could bond over how Trump would make America great again?

Political ideology seems to be the great equalizer, the silver bullet that clinches either our “click” with one person or explains why that other person and I just could never get along. But when we assume that political ideology covers a multitude of sins in diversity, when I assume that another student at my school will be a better friend to me because of her convergence with me on political ideas, I do not serve myself well.

I can only speak for myself. My friends fit overwhelmingly in one category: white women, from various suburban areas of the US and middle-class or higher socioeconomic status, who are undergraduate students at private colleges, and would call themselves Christians as they believe in Jesus Christ as a Savior. They absolutely range more when political beliefs are measured, but if I had to pin it down, I’d say a majority would identify as conservative or moderate (or maybe just “more conservative than this school is”).

So how did I get here? Where are my friends who aren’t white, who are living on or below the poverty line, who weren’t given the opportunity of college or just chose a different path? Where are my friends who aren’t Christian?

Are my friends all the same because I gravitate toward women who identify similarly to me politically?

This isn’t a call for me or for anyone else to change who they’re friends with, because I think diversity can show up in smaller and more nuanced ways than we can even imagine. I learn from my friends daily, in the diverse ways they approach conflict and relationships and passions based on the differences in experiences we’ve had as people.

But relationships don’t form in a vacuum, and mine have come from a convergence of values that seem to represent themselves in large numbers in certain sorority houses, and certain Christian organizations, and at certain schools in general. What if I stopped thinking that the only fulfilling friendships I can find are ones where political ideology unites us?

I’m generally cynical of venues like town hall discussions, where fiercely-held opinions can be spouted without any fear of reproach aside from that which comes from the microphone on the opposite side of the room. I want to value the relationship with the person I’m looking at when I share my opinion even more than I value that opinion, so I rarely share partisan articles on Facebook or raise my hand in heated discussions in class. But don’t martyr me–there are as many problems with staying quiet in important conversations as there are with oversharing.

I’ve learned to share your opinions carefully my whole life. My dad holds relatively unpopular political views, and he is one of the most thoughtful people I have ever known. He’s the one, not a staunch Democrat or unswavering Republican, that taught me to question what I hear from both sides–which is why at home, the news gets switched from CBS to Fox and back, because “you won’t get the full story from any one source.” I’m cautioned, as a college student, that higher education is an incredibly liberal place, and we always benefit by hearing where the other side comes from before forming our own beliefs.

Last Wednesday, I went to a panel discussion where two insightful men spoke: Greg Lukianoff, the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jelani Cobb, a staff writer for the New Yorker who generally covers race, politics, history, and culture. Cobb and Lukianoff debated free speech in higher education, specifically the prevalence of safe spaces, trigger warnings and “outrage culture.” When asked whether Carol Swain, a polarizing professor of law at Vanderbilt, should not be punished for her offensive beliefs about Muslim and transgendered communities, Cobb and Lukianoff agreed on this: it’s important to remember that people whose views you see as repugnant are supported by people who believe your views are just as.

Of course it’s confusing to conservatives why liberals are impassioned about accepting the gender spectrum. And of course it’s confusing to liberals why conservatives fiercely protect their right to gun ownership. But maybe what we haven’t yet tried is seeing if these misunderstandings can be sorted out in fellowship. In the same panel, Lukianoff referred to a concept called “epistemic humility”: the humility of understanding that I do not know everything. I’ll never know everything about the experiences of women who have gotten abortions, or administrators whose careers have ended from campus activism, or families whose scandals make the headlines for months.

I’ll never know everything, but neither will anyone else. That’s the biggest relief.

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