Marginalized people aren’t in a bubble. Conservatism is the polluted air we breathe every day. Why do we have to be friends with people who spew it at us?
We’re often chided for living in bubbles. We’re told that we only listen to people who already agree with us, and that this narrows our thinking. We’re told that a willingness to have friends with different political views means having an open mind and an open heart — and that there’s something wrong with us if we aren’t doing that. Recently, politician and commentator Robert Reich voiced this idea on Facebook:
I have a conservative friend with whom I make a point to have lunch at least once a month. Why? I like him but that’s not the main reason. He makes me think. In forcing me defend my assumptions and ideas, he gets me to examine them more deeply. I hope I do the same for him. One of the biggest problems in America today is most of us live in ideological cocoons surrounded by people who think like us. Yet there is no better way to learn than to talk to someone who disagrees with you.
I don’t just want to pick on Reich here, though. This notion gets spouted a lot. And just off the top of my head, I can think of three major things that are wrong with it.
Wrong Thing Number One: Do you seriously think marginalized people don’t know what people think of us?
Do you seriously think women haven’t heard from people who think we should be forced to donate our reproductive organs? Do you think African Americans are unfamiliar with the idea that brutally racist cops are just a few bad apples and that most black people who get killed by cops must have brought it on themselves? Do you think queers don’t know about people who think our love lives are unnatural, undeserving of equality and respect, and any of their damn business?
When political issues don’t affect you personally, it’s easy to have calm, abstract political debates with conservatives and still stay friends. The bubble you live in protects you. For many of us, these political issues are ingrained into our everyday lives. They affect how we’re treated at work, at home, at the store, at the bank, when we travel, when we drive, when we walk down the street, when we go to the bathroom, when we go to the gym, when we just stay home playing video games. For some of us, these issues are literally life or death. Conservative political ideas are the polluted air we breathe, the toxic water we drink. Do you seriously think that in order to think, learn, and examine our ideas, we need to be friends with people who spew them at us? If you think that’s a reasonable request, you are living in a bubble made of six-inch-thick bulletproof glass.
Which leads to Wrong Thing Number Two: I am not going to “examine my ideas more deeply” when I debate Remedial Social Justice for the 80,000th time.
I don’t feel a need to debate politics with conservatives for the same reason I don’t need to discuss biology with creationists. I’ve already considered these ideas, at length. In many cases, I have never been allowed to forget these ideas. I’m soaking in them. (See Wrong Thing Number One above). They’re shitty ideas. I’ve considered them, I’ve rejected them, and I don’t need to reconsider them for the 80,000th time in order to have an open mind. I am ready to move on.
I agree that it’s good not to live in a bubble. For me, that means not living most of my life surrounded by other white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated, nerdy San Franciscans. It means having friends and colleagues of different ages, races, incomes, health statuses (physical and mental), educations, jobs, sexual orientations, gender identities, cultural backgrounds, geographies — hell, different musical tastes. I’m deeply involved in social justice activism, and I get my ideas challenged and changed almost every day, by people whose life experiences are vastly different from mine. There’s nothing magical about having that moral and intellectual pressure come from the right. I am entirely capable of thinking, learning, and re-examining my ideas, without making myself intimately vulnerable to people whose political views do serious harm to me and the people I love.
And this leads to Wrong Thing Number Three: Politics are an expression of values. And I don’t want to be friends with people who don’t share my core values.
“Conservative,” in the United States, means holding ideas that are deeply damaging to women, LGBTQIA people, people of color, poor people, disabled people, immigrants, and other marginalized people. And don’t come at me with “fiscally conservative, socially liberal.” That’s bullshit. As I’ve written before: You can’t separate fiscal issues from social issues. They’re deeply intertwined. And conservative fiscal policies do enormous harm. Conservative thinking represents values that I find reprehensible.
If I want to hone my liberal ideas by being forced to defend them, there are lots of outlets to do that. Most of the Internet is one big outlet for all of us to do that. And yes, some of my ideas have been clarified and sharpened by those debates. But I’m not going to be friends with those people. My friends are people I invite into my home; who bring me food when I’ve had surgery; who tell me about their joys and sorrows; who help me think through hard choices; who I sit with when they’re grieving; who I call when my depression is at its bleakest. You’re asking me to do all that with people who believe that I, and people I love, are something less than human. No, not consciously, very few people think that consciously, and when they do they rarely admit it. But the dehumanization of large swaths of people, the treatment of some animals as more equal than others, is deeply ingrained in U.S. conservatism, and has been for decades. You’re asking me to be friends with people who believe that I, and people I love, are something less than human — and who act accordingly. You keep using this word “friend.” I do not think it means what you think it means.
Some progressives have conservative friends, even lovers or spouses. I often find it baffling, but I don’t think they’re wrong for doing it. I get that different people have different boundaries, different degrees of conflict they’re willing to have with people they’re close to, different things they’re willing to have conflict about. But I’m not going to have conservative friends. And if you think there’s something wrong with me for that, if you think I’m under a moral or intellectual obligation to do that, you need to get your head out of your own bubble, and start listening to the people your conservative friend is screwing over.