This comment on a previous thread intrigued me (the first question, that is—although the second was a bit intriguing, also).
The query posed: back when I was a liberal Democrat, if I’d met a group composed mostly of conservatives, and had talked politics with them (or anything else, for that matter), what would my reaction have been?
Interesting question, impossible to answer with total knowledge, of course, since one can’t take a trip back in time. I’ve been critical here of liberals who are intolerant of conservatives or centrists (I consider myself one of the latter). So, did I used to be equally intolerant? How would I react were my previous self to meet my present self—would I slap my own face and walk off in a huff?
Like Pauline Kael, I’ve indeed traveled in a bit of a liberal bubble. But you may recall that during Vietnam I had a boyfriend serving there. He wasn’t a conservative, as far as I know–in fact, we hardly ever discussed politics, although we did discuss the war itself. I attended a hugely liberal school and yet, despite the fact that my friends knew I had someone serving in combat in Vietnam, I never heard a word directed against me—or him, for that matter—from anyone I knew.
Yes, I suppose that although I traveled in liberal circles, they weren’t especially radical ones. But I think it’s noteworthy that even back in that time of such discord, somehow the discourse around me seemed civil enough.
Later, I always had a few centrist or even conservative friends. A few. We just didn’t discuss politics, or if we did, we did it in a very amicable way. Was this because the issues of the 80s and 90s seemed more removed and tangential, as compared to the intensity of the post-9/11 era in which we now live? I think so.
Therefore I’ll have to say that I believe, had I been transported to some sort of “conservative” get-together back then, I wouldn’t have disliked the people or been tremendously uncomfortable there—not that anything they said to change my opinion would have worked at the time (speaking of which, I guess it’s time to start working on that next “change” post…)
Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I have no recollection of demonizing the right back when I was a liberal. I didn’t see any person as a bigot or a Scrooge—unless that individual actually said something bigoted or Scrooge-like, that is. My training as a therapist was part of it, I suppose—although that came later, in the 90s. A therapist, in order to be effective, must actually listen, and listen hard and without preconceived notions, to the person sitting in the chair opposite. Therapists need to come at that process of listening with the attitude of trying to get into the head of the client and be respectful of him/her. It requires a sort of doubling; an imaginative leap into the world of the other while still retaining one’s own self, perspective, and judgment. A therapist needs to hold both things in the mind at once, and use all these sensibilities together to help the client.
Of course, some of the most rabidly politically intolerant people I know are therapists, as I’ve learned to my sorrow since I left the liberal circle, so that argument falls down somewhat (I can’t imagine that such people could be very good therapists, but that’s another story for another time).
I think there’s still another source of my attitude towards talking politics; and surprise, surprise! it comes from my childhood. I grew up in a family where there was an ongoing political war between my father and his brother, my uncle. Ours was a small family, and this was our closest relative, who lived nearby and whom we saw very often.
From earliest childhood (cue violins here) I can remember the bitter arguing that went on at every social gathering, small or large, when they were together. Especially bad were dinners at our house, when it was just us, and they could give full vent to their frustration with each other. My uncle was not only a pro-Soviet pro-Communist, he was a politically involved fanatical pro-Soviet pro-Communist—although not, as far as I know, a member of the Party. It was clear to me even as a tiny child that nothing was ever going to come from these “discussions” but more of the same; no mind was ever going to be changed by them. And I hated it.
Somewhere quite early in the game I must have taken a vow, without realizing it, to try not to be like my uncle. To try to listen respectfully and not dismiss the arguments of the opposition out of hand, to try to evaluate the assertions of opponents with an open mind and the use of reason rather than emotion, and to change the subject if it’s clear the discussion is going nowhere and never will go anywhere.
I’m sure I’ve violated these rules at times—but I’ve tried very hard not to. The echoes of those terrible and utterly fruitless fights of my youth still ring too loudly in my ears to ever want to emulate them.
My uncle was a world traveler, and he often met people in his journeys who later came to New York and visited as they passed through. I remember one evening in 1968 having dinner with my family at my uncle’s house. He was hosting a gentleman he’d met in Czechoslovakia. It was right after the Soviet crackdown on the “Prague spring,” and it turns out my uncle had been visiting Czechoslovakia at the time of the arrival of the tanks, or shortly thereafter.
I was sitting opposite the Czech gentleman, and I watched him as my uncle discoursed on how the Czech people had welcomed the Soviets with open arms, and other assorted pro-Soviet tales. I watched the man’s eyes; he was a guest in my uncle’s house, practically a stranger, and he tried mightily to control himself, confining himself to the clenched-tooth utterance, “That’s not true; that’s not the way it was.”
My uncle was neither listening nor watching; he continued to wax rhapsodic on the joys of Soviet life. I looked at the man, trying somehow to convey with my eyes my youthful sympathy and empathy. I will never ever forget the look of bitter sorrow in his as he looked back at me.