Why I Abandoned Conservatism

To most people who don’t know it already, here’s something that will probably come as a surprise: until about two years ago, I was a far-right conservative.

No, really, I was. Here are some things that I believed when I was a conservative. I believed that there is no real racism or sexism anymore. A Black man is president and women can work outside the home, so none of that. I thought same-sex couples should not be able to get married because that’s not what marriage means. And they definitely shouldn’t be able to adopt children because then the children would also become gay and we can’t have that.

I thought that the government has no right to tell people how to live, except when it does. It has no right to take our taxes and use them to help poor people, because poor people just don’t try hard enough. I thought that lowering taxes makes people spend more, always. I thought that affirmative action is exactly the same thing as racism, because after all, you’re doing things based on people’s skin color.

I believed that the United States has the responsibility to spread democracy throughout the world, by use of force if necessary. Needless to say, I applauded both of our recent wars. I thought that global warming was either a lie or at least an exaggeration, and even if it wasn’t, the government has no right to dictate what we do with the environment, anyway.

I pitied the women who went out carelessly and got themselves raped. I thought the justice system generally does its job, so if rapists weren’t getting convicted, that probably means they didn’t really do it. I thought false rape accusations were a much bigger problem, in fact.

I adored Clarence Thomas, George Bush, Antonin Scalia, Ann Coulter, and, of course, Ronald Reagan. I reserved a particular hatred for Al Gore and Barack Obama.

I believed that abortion was murder, and that it should be illegal in almost all cases.

I figure I’m supposed to be terribly ashamed and contrite about all of this, but truthfully, I’m not. I was a teenager, first of all, and second, I don’t know what I could’ve done to find any other narrative. There are a number of reasons why I was a conservative, and they were chiefly these:

  • because my family was
  • because I grew up in suburban Ohio
  • because our K-12 education teaches us that the American government is Good, that laws are Just, that the justice system Works, and so on
  • because children tend to believe that their values and morals should be everyone’s values and morals
  • because I didn’t have access to the sort of critical analysis that encourages examination of one’s politics–until I got to college

So there you have it. Once I got to college, I took some sociology classes and quickly became a moderate. Then I took more classes, read more, made more friends, read much more, got involved in sexual health activism, got involved in other types of activism, started to see how everything in our society interacts with each other, read some more, and developed the ideology that I have now.

That ideology is something I call progressivism because I favor change in a positive direction. I don’t think that things are fine as they are. I don’t think we should just calm down and stop whining. I don’t think humanity has reached its potential and I don’t think it’ll reach it for a very, very long time. I think our intellect and our compassion are two human qualities that do not get used nearly enough.

People always ask me how I made such a 180-degree shift in politics. I don’t really know how it happened, perhaps because it happened while I was in the midst of a major depression, which means I don’t remember anything too well. But everyone asks that–my friends, my readers, my professors. My therapist asked me today.

I think the way I changed is that I started looking beneath the surface more. Why are there so many Black men in prison? Is it because Black men are naturally predisposed to crime? Apparently not. For instance, in California in 2011, African Americans were 12 times more likely than non-African Americans to be imprisoned on drug-related felony charges, but studies show that African Americans are no more likely to use and sell drugs than anyone else (in fact, they may be less likely to). What’s going on?

That’s just one small example. I learned dozens upon dozens of such examples over the past few years, about everything. About women, people of color, the environment, food policy, agriculture, mental health, disability, LGBT folks, the poor, drug policy, city planning, wars, guns, education, sexual assault, business, discrimination laws, religion, the media, language, abortion, sex ed, obesity, scientific research, healthcare, elections, the Supreme Court, college, advertising, fashion, feminism, queer theory, money.

My head is overflowing with this information and yet I learn more and more of it every day. Whereas I used to think that each person is an individual who makes choices that are absolutely his or her own, I now know that we are acted upon by countless societal forces at every moment. I still do believe that people should strive for independence, but that can’t happen without gaining a deep understanding of these forces.

Do I have a solution for all of this? No. And frankly, I’m kind of tired of people demanding me to provide them with solutions. If I thought I could save the world, I’d be a politician. And I’d be wrong.

But sooner or later, we as a society will stumble upon solutions, slowly but surely.

Everything is connected. Everything is politics. Everything affects you, even in some little way, somehow.

That’s why I am no longer a conservative.

That’s why this is not “just a phase,” “youthful idealism,” or “naivete.”

My exact views on specific issues will change throughout my life, but what won’t is my awareness of the fact that none of us live inside a bubble, no matter how much we may wish that we did.

The graphing calculator I used in high school had a big ol’ John McCain 2008 sticker on it. I rocked that damn sticker. Now I have stickers from Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and Occupy Chicago. It’s kind of both fun and sad to look back at who I used to be. But I’m not ashamed. We all did stupid things in high school, and honestly, I could’ve done worse than plaster McCain stickers on things and rant about how evil feminism is.

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The Value of Disagreement

A photo from an Obama-McCain debate in 2008. Just to add some requisite humor to this otherwise serious post.

I am a liberal and I go to a liberal school. Sometimes this makes me feel happy and comfortable, because I have so much in common with others here in terms of politics. I can complain publicly about Americans’ lack of belief in climate change, or about something Glenn Beck said. I can ask my friends if they’ve seen the latest episode of the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. I can rant excitedly about some famous person coming out as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans. And I can do all this without worrying that I’m going to offend someone, or that someone is going to argue with me.

But two recent incidents made me ask myself if this is really such a good thing.

One was a conversation I had with a friend about a mutual friend of ours. We’re all really close and hang out a lot, but when I suggested to one that he go have a conversation with the other, he said that they don’t really have anything serious to talk about. I asked why, and he said that they always just agree on everything and there’s little to discuss.

The other was the killing of Osama Bin Laden. When this happened, my Facebook feed suddenly exploded with such a variety of opinions that I didn’t even know existed at Northwestern. Some people were screaming “USA! USA!” Others were really happy that Bin Laden was dead, but didn’t want to celebrate so gleefully. Others were ambivalent, wondering why this really mattered, or whether or not he should’ve been shot dead. Others still were furious that he’d been killed on the spot, arguing that he should’ve been tried by the American judicial system instead. Some were religious Jews or Christians, happy to have gained this victory against radical Islam. (Unfortunately, I don’t know many Muslims, but I would’ve loved to hear their perspectives.) Some were atheists or agnostics, wishing that we didn’t have these religious wars to begin with. And so on and so forth.

Immediately, tons of arguments and debates started up. I got into quite a few myself. As a result, I changed certain parts of my opinion, began to understand other parts more clearly, and generally started articulating my views a bit better. And, also, I learned a lot about many of my friends.

After that, I started to realize how much we’re missing here in terms of political dialogue. I used to be very conservative, but back then I lived in Ohio and everyone around me pretty much agreed. Now that I’m much more liberal, I’m once again surrounded by people who share my views on almost everything. Except for those times when my friends and I start getting bitchy and arguing minutiae, I rarely get to have a good political debate.

What to do about this? I honestly don’t know. I don’t know how to get more conservative or libertarian students to attend Northwestern. Like it or not, this is a liberal campus.

One related issue, however, is a bit easier to solve, and that is the tendency of people to want to shut down those who disagree. (I addressed this briefly in the previous post.) The internet makes it much easier to do this because you can literally avoid “conservative” or “liberal” websites, but I see this in play even out in the real world. When I lived in Ohio, despite being conservative, I had the uncomfortable feeling that conservatives always wanted to shut liberals up. Luckily, I didn’t have to feel guilty for long, because when I came to Northwestern I found that liberals do the exact same thing. The way we respond to alternative viewpoints is often anything but respectful and curious–it’s snarky and dismissive.

For instance, when discussing people who oppose the right to abortion, liberals like to refer to them as “anti-choice” rather than “pro-life,” which is what they call themselves. This is, in my opinion, ridiculously disrespectful. Pro-lifers place the sanctity of life above the freedom of choice, but that doesn’t mean they oppose choice. It just means they value life (and they define life as beginning at conception) more than they value choice. I disagree with this position entirely, but I respect it and can see why some people would think that way.

Similarly, conservatives will purposefully refer to Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama” (to highlight his “Muslim” middle name) or as the “Obamination” or as any number of other highly disrespectful monikers. Why? Why talk like this about the President of the United States just because he is a liberal?

This needs to stop. From both sides. Silencing the opinions of others benefits nobody. If they’re wrong, they’re wrong. If they’re right, then you should know the truth. If they’re partially right and partially wrong, you should take this opportunity to fine-tune your own views.

In fact, in order to put my money where my mouth is, from now on I’m going to seek out intelligent conservative blogs and read them. If nothing else, it’ll help me learn how to defend my own views better. Unfortunately, I don’t hear many conservative opinions here on campus, so I’m going to look for them elsewhere.