Political Discourse: On Stepping Away

I’ve always been the kind of person to insist on across-the-aisle engagement. In other words, don’t dismiss the Trump supporter — go talk to them, because rejecting change is dangerous and separation is inherently unequal.

This summer, my roommate at debate camp was from a Catholic school in southern Louisiana and fit almost all the stereotypes that accompany her description. Though I was excited for the opportunity to act on my words and engage in conversations outside my comfort zone, in hindsight, I almost regret my eagerness.

The first night is the easiest. We agree that the American political status quo — a mess of polarized echo chambers and spineless toxicity — is in part a result of an inability, or an unwillingness, to engage in discourse. So we talk. I’m curious about her father’s extensive collection of antique guns, and she’s surprised I learn about slut shaming at school. For the rest of the night, we end up bouncing from topic to topic without much depth. It’s a collection of controversial questions jumbled into one personality assessment — a quick roommate compatibility test, if you will — every differing opinion fascinating rather than frustrating.

In the week that follows, there are plenty of good times. I wake up every morning to contemporary Christian music and smile. A girl next door walks into my room half-dressed, and my roommate raises her fist and shouts, “Your body is a temple, girls!” There’s always laughter. I meet the embodiment of my preconception of southern hospitality. She brings me tea when I start feeling sick and shares her Louisianian pecan pie. We practice speaking drills with Bible verses she chooses. Our conversations begin to hold substance: her missionary trips to South Africa, my feeling isolated in Missouri. We have little inside jokes. We laugh at what makes us so different.

But for every good conversation, a relieved exhale follows. A recognition of conflict avoided.

One night, she and a boy she has spent the whole day with come laughing back to our room at midnight. I tease her in that friend-to-friend way when the door shuts, and she tells me she could never love an Asian like that. Another night, she gives me the “My father got out of poverty, why can’t black people?” spiel. She tells me to go google how many partners the average gay man has in a year; she insists it’s 426. “I don’t hate gay people; they’re just too lustful,” she says. I bite my tongue every time she calls a girl a whore, every time she misgenders the two non-binary debaters at camp, every time she reads me Bible verses about what love is. “Love isn’t love — that’s propaganda — love is patient, love is kind.”

Sometimes her representations of people are cute, oddly. Other times, I wish the conversation would end. It gets hard to laugh it off.

In the last week, she snaps when I correct her pronouns for the first time. “I don’t care about his gender,” she yells, “and it’s not your job to tell me what I can and cannot say. You have no idea what it’s like to be white.” Fair point — I don’t know what that’s like. But it occurs to me then, for the first time, that maybe I should’ve responded differently to her. That, in any case, I didn’t have the strength or will to change her, so maybe I shouldn’t have held my anger back when she told me that no sane person would visit South Korea. Maybe I should have left the room when she told me it was my fault that boys can make me feel small. Maybe I should have told an adult when she said that white people might be justified in using the N-word because black people “are what they are.”

But I didn’t. I asked questions, and I sent her links to articles, and I conceded points I wanted to disagree with.

I wrote her two apology letters in the three week span. I kept the ‘finding Jesus’ book she gave me because I felt bad about throwing it away. I told my friends she was a sweet person at the heart. And what did I gain, really? Emotional exhaustion, sobering cynicism, and a need for sleep. I made a friend I never really want to see again.

So here’s a note to myself of a summer ago: don’t preach nothing-but-discourse when you have your safe space to run back to. Maximize spaces in which people can have focused conversations, value people for their character, and understand when people have to step away. It’s not always your responsibility to engage with what hurts.

I think, ultimately, that I might’ve had a better experience at camp if I had skirted around the political. This isn’t to say that avoidance is the right tactic in these scenarios, but ironically, she might’ve left with a better impression of “the left” if I hadn’t pried at her surface of politeness. My intentions were never to change her beliefs, but as a result of my curiosity and my missteps, I confused our conversations with constructive engagement and found myself buried in the brutal political toxicity that I had previously believed I could avoid.

What’s obvious to me now is that the resolution to all this division will be grayer and much less clear cut then “engage.” Persistence is admirable, but by the same coin, pointless. Openness is beautiful, but in reverse, naïve. Though this is by no means a solution, my aim for now is to limit the extent to which the political influences my perception of people, regardless of whether that perception is positive or negative. As much as I’ve always been the type to insist that discussions of a controversial nature are not only unavoidable but necessary, I’m wondering if it might be time to work on changing my own mind.