Columnist became liberal by listening
On Friday, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Neil Gross titled “Why are the highly educated so liberal?”
As a liberal, my initial answer to that question was predictably snarky. But after reading the piece, it got me thinking about my ideology and why I hold it.
The column explains — as well as it can in a few hundred words — how an increasing number of women with advanced degrees contribute to this increase in educated liberals. It also mentions the Republican Party’s recent sharp turn to the extreme right as a possible reason for more liberal degree holders.
My own path to liberalism is personal. I grew up with moderate parents who to this day don’t adhere to one ideology or the other. But when I went to college, I met entirely new groups of people.
At my community college, I shared classes with people of varied races and ages. I met a ton of openly gay and trans people. It wasn’t rare at all for me to sit next to a white grandmother in one period, then a gay black man the next.
And while it’s easy to chalk up this increase in liberalism in our country’s most highly educated to the things we learn in the classroom, I would argue it has more to do with the people we meet.
I had a Latina Muslim classmate in my world religions course who taught me more than any lecture on Buddhism or Islam or Zoroastrianism ever could.
I’m sorry to say I don’t even remember her name, but I’ll never forget what she taught me.
She spoke openly in class about how she struggled to fit in. Most of her family was Catholic, and most of her religious community was Middle Eastern. She faced discrimination from both sides, but she was strong. She embraced her ethnicity as well as her religion, and she did it without apology.
As a white Christian woman surrounding by other white Christians most of my life, I never felt what she felt. And I hadn’t even had a conversation with anyone who faced real discrimination.
When I transferred to a four-year school, I had a black roommate named Aliece.
One day soon after moving in, I was standing just inside our dorm room door when I heard Aliece talking with some of the (white) boys on our floor. Aliece and I had our names written on the outside of our door, and she told the boys to guess which name was hers.
“You must be Aliece because that’s more of a black girl name,” one said with a laugh.
I couldn’t believe they would be so casual and disrespectful like that to someone they’d just met. When Aliece came inside, I asked her about it.
“It’s OK,” she said. “They just don’t know any better.”
And in that moment, I thought about all the times in Aliece’s life that she must have had to bite her tongue when someone said something casually racist to her — just because they didn’t know any better. I thought of all the times she had to decide between letting it go or taking on the role of educator to someone ignorant to her life experience. It seemed exhausting, and it broke my heart.
I also learned a lot about feminism in college — more through life experience than any class. I was called sexist names in group situations when I pushed my team members to do better (or do their work at all). I was cat-called constantly when I walked home from the student newspaper offices late at night. I bought my first pepper spray canister and deeply resented the fact that none of my male friends had one, while almost all my female friends kept one on their key rings.
In graduate school, half of the dozen students in my program were international. I met people who grew up in India, China, Taiwan and Colombia. I learned about the world through them and their experiences.
I was also poor for the first time in grad school, which very quickly changed my mind about a slew of social issues. It’s easy to knock the poor when you’ve never had to eat ramen noodles for lunch and dinner for weeks straight.
So while what I learned in a classroom surely contributed to my liberal ideology, what I learned from meeting other people and actually listening to them and taking in their life experiences has contributed more.
It’s a nice idea, believing we’re all just the “human race” and that all forms of discrimination — based on race, sex, religion, gender, sexuality, age or anything else — have been eradicated. But I’ve met people who are different than me, and we’ve grown to love and embrace our differences. And I believe their stories just as I expect them to believe mine. I’ve become liberal through listening.
I’d encourage you to give it a try.
Jessica Cabe is a former arts and entertainment editor for the Post Independent. Her column appears on the third Thursday of each month.
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