For my Senior Spring Project (SSP), I'm currently taking Dr. Lippard's course, Beyond Our Echo Chambers. The course, following in the non-profit Braver Angels' footsteps, tries to inspire productive dialogue between liberals and conservatives; in this case, the liberals are BB&N seniors, and the conservatives high school students from the Sam Houston High School in Louisiana.
Throughout the (approximately) eight-week duration of SSP, we have met and will meet with the students every week for 90 minutes. After each discussion, we spend around 20 minutes reflecting on our experience, and I thought it would be interesting to share my experience taking this course.
We spent the first two weeks establishing relationships with the SHHS students by introducing ourselves and sharing our respective objects of significance to humanize the other side. Then, on a fateful third week, we began discussing juicier (more controversial and substantative) topics such as racism/xenophobia, abortion, and the (dreaded) Constitution. (Note: We are currently approaching the fifth week, so my opinion about these discussions are still developing.)
Where to begin? ~On the third week of talking, my true love sent to me, a conversation with conservative students.~ I'm kidding. We divided into two groups by schools—and political divide—and brainstormed common stereotypes about our political group. In doing so, we not only disproved the stereotypes but also acknowledged the extent to which they were true.
The stereotypes were unsurprising and somewhat banal. The SHHS students described how liberals stereotype them as racist/xenophobic, anti-immigration, and climate-change deniers. With regards to climate change, they said that their town depends heavily on fossil fuels and that they don't believe that humans are capable of fiddling with the environment because "everything we touch goes wrong;" with regards to immigration, they said that allowing people to immigrate illegally is unfair to those who immigrated legally.
Although there were moments that I thought, "Whaat? Did they really just say that?" hearing their rationale behind why these stereotypes were false and misleading and why they had these beliefs helped me better humanize them. Rather than simply ignoring their opinions, however myopic and factually incorrect I considered them, I learned to engage with their beliefs and listen, the first step to reconciling polarized opinions. To that end, I still believe that climate change is humanity's biggest threat and that we need to invest in greener infrastructure. However, they have a valid point that the transition to renewable energy is a process of creative destruction, one that particularly harms towns dependent on coal mines in the short-run.
We then noted the notions that we were baby killers, anti-police, and anti-religion, and too sensitive (aka woke). We then spun these stereotypes in a more positive light: for example, that we aren't baby killers but rather pro-choice; that we aren't anti-police but anti-racism; and that we aren't too sensitive ourselves but rather want to be sensitive of others' feelings.
Finally, we acknowledged some truth in these statements: we don't provide many incentives and enough support to pregnant women who might otherwise seek an abortion (search up Ross Douthat on the NYTimes); we often jump to conclusions about racial profiling and Republicans before hearing the whole story; and we use the nadir of peoples' lives to judge their value as human beings and launch into vengeful attacks on Twitter to cancel their lives.
At the end of the session, I realized that we tend to demonize conservatives, using the most extreme ends of the spectrum to generalize for all conservatives. While I certainly don't agree with a majority of their opinions, we have to acknowledge that they—especially high schoolers—aren't as extreme as we portray them to be.
Hearing them describe their beliefs and lives showed how the media tends to exaggerate and distort conservative opinions for the sake of content or to inflame audiences. I'm reminded of one video in which Nathan Sandmann, a high school student wearing a MAGA hat, was recorded speaking down to Nathan Philis, a Native American man; it took off and the kid was "canceled." In reality, the Native American man had previously provoked the passive kid into reacting, making the situation much more ambiguous as to who was in the wrong.
That said, even framing the conversation as an "us" and "they" is conducive to the estrangement of the other political party. I think that establishing a more inclusive vernacular and using phrases such as "some of us" instead of "us and them" is necessary to remedy our political divide.
Today's session was particularly frustrating because we couldn't respond to what
the other side was saying. We had closed-group discussions with each of our schools; while the BB&N students spoke, the SHHS students muted themselves and turned their cameras off, and vice versa. During this session, we answered the questions, "Why do you believe your side's policies are good for the United States?" and "What reservations do you have about your side?"
The BB&N students went first. We spoke about the recent American Rescue Plan and our private healthcare system (for reference, the US is the only developed country without a public option), and racial justice. I framed these under the tenet of equality: we want everyone to have equal opportunities and be treated the same. President Biden's The American Jobs Plan and The American Families Plan best exemplify this idea: we improve our infrastructure to help our struggling lower and middle classes, granting everyone equal opportunities and striving for the effects of climate change to be felt equitably by all (climate justice). We agreed that cancel culture is terrifying; I mentioned the previous example I discussed, of the Native American man Nathan Philips and Nick Sandmann. Lastly, we mentioned that free markets were a necessity of a functioning society. When opting for the right balance between government control and free markets in a burgeoning sector, we would err on the side of the latter.
It was then our turn to mute ourselves and turn off our cameras. The SHHS students reappeared on our screen and immediately dived into their perspective on controversial issues. One student agreed with our interpretation of free markets and government control, without delving into much nuance. In response to our point about Black Lives Matter, one student said "all lives matter." I believe that her intent was honest, as all lives do matter, but the message itself is superficial when reflecting upon history and the disproportionate suffering Black Americans have suffered.
Someone mentioned that all of their classmates participating in the seminar were white, which I found quite telling of the community they went to school in. Then, another student delved into why illegal immigration was bad and how immigrants were taking our jobs. Finally, another student launched into a tirade on how stripping away our Second Amendment rights sets us down a slippery slope—if the government could take away the Second Amendment, couldn't they rescind all other amendments?
My frustration stems from the fact that we reference two completely different sets
of facts; the Republican "facts" tend to fabricate stories or grossly exaggerate others, especially when it comes to the Second Amendment. I wanted to respond to some of their claims with "that's factually incorrect!" but we weren't allowed to. (My peers shared similar sentiments after.) At least we didn't mention QAnon or the Capitol riots; one student's reference to how only ⅓ of our national debt is owned by foreigners, with only five percent owned by China, redeemed the conversation for me.
While debriefing with an SHHS student, I realized that our only point of consensus is that we agreed to disagree. However, I think we could have far more nuanced conversations than the one we had this week. We plan on splitting up into smaller groups next week, so I'm praying I can find more common ground with my partner.