March 29, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: The Conservative

Last week, a few people pointed out that my visit to the Tea Party meeting didn't lead to a meaningful connection with a member of the conservative movement. Instead, I repeatedly hit the bullseye of an easy target.

I agree and disagree. Yes, I took some shots, but as I explained, the evening was pure insanity from beginning to end. If the meeting would have been a pleasant experience, I would have written about that. But I definitely didn't make any attempt to connect with a real person. I settled for the mob mentality, which always seems to be more extreme than any one person's thoughts and feelings.

Thankfully, a conservative follower of my blog volunteered to sit down and talk about his political ideology. I had briefly met Dan a few months ago at church, but this was the first time we ever shared an extended conversation.

It took us less than ten minutes to realize Dan's younger brother used to play baseball with my older brother. Dan knew my father. In fact, we probably sat in bleachers ten feet away from each other over twenty years ago watching high school baseball games. Weird.

Dan and I talked for almost four hours on Sunday. Obviously, we both shared a lot of information. But instead of recounting lots of specifics, I want to focus more generally on what God has been teaching me recently, culminating Sunday during my conversation with Dan.

1) If we look for something, we'll always find it. In other words, there are lots of crazy conservatives in this country. And there are lots of crazy liberals. It was incredibly easy to mock the Tea Party meeting. Just like it's incredibly easy for Bill Maher to make a documentary about crazy Christians. It's definitely entertaining, but is it helpful? If we all understand that those groups are rare pockets of insanity, then exploiting them for entertainment purposes is harmless fun (possibly cruel, but still relatively harmless to the general population). But when millions of people incorrectly label all Christians as nut jobs because they watch a Bill Maher documentary, or all conservatives as ignorant because they read blogs like mine, that's a recipe for disaster.

2) Dan is not crazy (well, no more than the rest of us). He definitely has his opinions, but he seemed to be grounded in reality. In other words, he was a thoughtful man. He's a fan of some conservative pundits, but sees the weaknesses of others. He values conservative thinking, but appreciates leaders from both sides of the aisle who are willing to work together for the betterment of our country. He would likely classify himself as socially conservative, but worries more about fiscal responsibility. My biggest problem has always been people from either side who blindly follow party lines without any thoughtful reflection. Obama doesn't do everything wrong, and he doesn't do everything right. So why pretend he does? Dan seemed willing to acknowledge Obama's strengths, even in the midst of criticizing many of his liberal policies.

I was also glad to hear that Dan uses to research rumors spread among conservatives. It drives me crazy when people share false information through e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking platforms. This type of viral ignorance was out of control during the 2008 presidential election and reappeared during the recent healthcare debate. All it takes is two minutes to research a rumor before you state it as fact. Dan shared numerous examples of him doing exactly that whenever one of those e-mails appeared in his inbox.

Just this morning, one of my former students (who is clearly against Obama's healthcare bill), posted a video about Canada's healthcare system, and wrote, "Not sure exactly how credible it might be, but regardless, watch it." Ummm ... you might want to be sure how credible it is before you tell people to watch it!

But then I got to thinking. How many conservatives do I know that actually spread false rumors? Out of my 422 Facebook friends, there aren't many. Last Monday, I commented to dozens of people that my Facebook page filled up with liberals and conservatives going crazy about the healthcare bill. But looking back, there weren't many. A few people made annoying comments, but most didn't care. That's when I realized ...

3) Most of America is caught between the extremes. Most of us watch politics as though it's a reality television show. A really annoying reality television show ... maybe even a sitcom. Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann are like cartoon characters. But very few of us actually think Dubya orchestrated 9/11. Very few of us think Obama is the Antichrist. But we all love a good conspiracy theory, so the nonsense lives on.

Dan and I actually have a lot in common. Sure, we differ on some key issues, but philosophically, what we both want is for our political process to work. We want our leaders to work together to do what's best for their constituents.

4) I believe our only hope for the future is dialogue. When you get to know people, you begin to learn about their motivations. Dan made this point during our conversation, and I thought it was great. There's a reason why many conservatives are so upset about healthcare. There's a reason why many liberals fought so hard to pass healthcare reform. Unless we dig beneath the rhetoric to find those reasons, pointless arguing will become the norm.

5) Dan clearly articulated why he is so angry (and by extension, why he feels many other conservatives share in his anger). He feels like his voice hasn't been heard. Or, if heard, not valued. He cited a recent speech in which Obama said the majority of Americans had been heard (voices calling for healthcare reform), but Obama didn't speak to the millions of Americans who were against this bill. No, "Hey, I know you guys are out there, and I understand why you are upset, so let's talk about your concerns."

I did find it interesting that Dan's biggest complaint seems to be his "lack of voice." It made me wonder how many oppressed groups have shared in his frustrations. Maybe Dan and other conservatives are learning a valuable lesson about what it feels like to be marginalized. As a heterosexual, white, Christian male, I am used to being in the majority. I can understand how frustrating it would be to suddenly feel helpless.

6) That which unites us is stronger than that which divides us. At least, I still hope this is true. Ironically, last Thursday I met with four women from the University of Cincinnati who wanted to discuss my Church Experiment. They were all liberals, and they had been reading a book about three women from different faith backgrounds engaging in dialogue, so they thought it might be interesting to hear about my experiences. It's funny how easy it became to bash conservatives at the Tea Party, how comfortable it felt criticizing conservatives during the book club meeting last week, and then how natural it felt to have a real conversation with Dan on Sunday. The key difference? Dan and I focused on commonalities. We found ways to connect our competing ideologies. We were two human beings, looking each other in the eyes, trying to understand a person instead of a stereotype.

We should all do more of that. In fact, that is my challenge for everyone this week. Find someone from a group you don't know very well—gay, black, Muslim, whatever. Buy that person a cup of coffee. Listen to his or her story. Seek to understand his or her motivations.

If you don't think it makes a difference, you didn't fully read this post.