My Many Thanks

As I am gearing up to go back to Duke for my sophomore year, I’m finishing editing my film component to my project this summer. I’m really proud of how it’s come together, and I’m excited to share it soon. I expect the finished 3-part video series along with an approximately hour-long abridged version to be completely finished by the end of August. To conclude my letters this summer, I want to thank all of the fantastic people who have helped contribute to my project and research this summer and what I’ve learned from them.

The collage I have attached as my picture for this week includes all of the people who I interviewed and who will be in my documentary in the order I mention them here.

Thank you…

To Shirley Bolinger for letting me into your past and showing me that it’s okay to change your mind on the way you think about a particular issue, and to always keep learning, growing, and having an open mind;

To The Honorable Tick Segerblom for showing me that politicians aren’t all just talk and for being unapologetically vocal about what you believe in, even when there are many outside pressures that might normally influence others to change, such as the case of voting to pass a bill;

To Daniel Chaney for helping me recognize that not only we as people change, but also the world and our environment, and the importance of active listening when engaging in conversations;

To Dr. Joe Thallemer for allowing me to step into your daily life as mayor and learn about what goes on behind the scenes of running a city, and for giving me a glimpse into the microcosm of politics that seems undervalued in a society caught up in large-scale government;

To Dustin Collins for showing how important it is to stick up for yourself, your values, and what you believe is important, as well as the 3 “P’s”: Pause, Paraphrase, and Probe;

To The Honorable Judge Jerome Tao for emphasizing the importance of staying unbiased and focused on your job, especially as it pertains to a non-partisan candidate running for office, and for being a role model of professionalism and eloquence;

To Assemblyman Elliot Anderson and Suzanne Bierman for shedding light on an infectious problem in politics where politicians often times value the opinions of people who bring in a bill and not the people whom the bill will affect, and for sharing strategies on how to avoid temptations like this;

To Brad Bolinger for pointing out that recognizing how the world has evolved over time and looking at moments throughout history can help us better understand why things are the way they are today;

To Jake Argo for allowing us to become closer through our conversation where I was able to learn about how living with hemophilia has impacted every day of your life, and how you recognize your own biases and deal with them as you are entering adulthood;

To David Sykes for being honest about a topic you don’t normally like talking about and communicating that sometimes it’s not only okay to take a moderate stance on a political issue, but to feel comfortable in doing so;

To Carolyn Huynh for having a conversation that goes beyond our friendship and into a topic that, as you mentioned, for the sake of trying to “keep the peace,” is often avoided on a college campus in settings where there are people with varying political opinions;

To Bob Turecky for talking about issues of political differences among family members and strategies to employ when faced with political conflict and confrontation, and for proving me wrong about preconceived notions I held about your beliefs;

And to The Honorable Justice Michael Douglas for humbly sharing your wisdom from your many years of practice, for conveying the importance of equality in court, and explaining challenges such as when your personal values conflict with written law.

The Lessons

I’ve officially wrapped up all of my interviews, and now I’m working on compiling all of them and producing a final video project. Along the way, I learned a lot more than just my research topic, which I’ll be sharing in this letter.

Here are my four biggest learning experiences this summer:

1. Double or triple-check equipment:
I’ve loved filming, editing, and making videos for most of my life, so I knew I ultimately wanted there to be a film component to my project. This way I could make it more creative and be something that would last longer and hopefully be used for educational purposes down the line. Because I’ve been making short videos since I was in seventh grade, I felt comfortable using equipment and editing software. Even though what I used for this project was different from what I normally use, perhaps I felt a little too comfortable. I’m used to filming things on a phone, with no external audio recording devices, but I wanted my project to look nice, so I bought a camera and clip-on microphones. I tested the camera, and it worked really well, and I tested the two microphones by plugging them into my phone and recording the audio, and they sounded great as well. But what I overlooked was that when I was filming and had the microphones plugged into the camera, one of the mics had the default volume it picked up on high. As a result, when I went back and listened to the footage, the audio sounded gravelly because of audio clipping. I was really disappointed because, while you can still clearly hear what people are saying, it doesn’t sound as professional as I would like, which could have easily been amended had I double-checked the audio.

2. Don’t stress about the interviews:
While many of the interviews I conducted were casual and didn’t require much prior preparation, there were a few people I was anxious to interview, as they were more high-profile, such as the chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court and the two State Senators I interviewed. My goal going into all of the interviews was to be conversational and ask questions relevant to my topic to hear people’s perspectives. I didn’t want the interviewees to just answer my questions, but I hoped for them to talk about themselves in a way that conveys their story. I prepared as much as I could for the interviews in order to ask relevant questions that were catered to the person with whom I was talking. But when I did go into the interviews with people like Justice Douglas or Senator Segerblom, I felt that it was less conversational like I had hoped and more back and forth of inquiring and responding because I was so focused on trying to ask the right questions. This, as a result, might make the finished interviews sound choppier than I would like. In addition, because I was nervous before going into one of my first interviews, when setting up my camera to film, I accidentally cropped off the top part of the person’s forehead. When I looked back at the footage, my heart sank because he wasn’t fully in the frame, but I was careful to make sure every person I interviewed after was 100% centered before recording.

3. Don’t go into the interviews expecting what people might say:
I slowly began to realize this the more I conducted my interviews, but it was something that still remained hard not to do. I think it is somewhat ironic that one of the central themes of my project is bias and assuming things about people before talking to them, when that is essentially what I did when lining up my interviews. I wanted to find people of varying political ideologies, realms of thinking, and backgrounds so that I would be able to hear different thoughts and opinions. But the only reason I chose the people I did was because I assumed what they might say because of their political affiliation and where they lived. This also led to questions I asked that I thought would satisfy more of how I thought they would answer, which surprised me when many of the responses were not what I had expected. I was mainly surprised by people who I thought were more on either extreme of the political spectrum but had more moderate takes on issues. This was an important realization for me because I went into this endeavor with the mindset that I would take a more ethnographic approach rather than probing for answers. But when I started talking with people, I think I forgot about this mentality and began to try to extract information from people rather than just listen to their stories. However, with the more interviews I conducted, I found it easier to ask questions that weren’t as pointed and provided for more authentic answers.

Of course, I learned so much more along the way, but these were my three biggest takeaways. With summer almost wrapping up, I’m sad that this journey is coming to an end, but I am so happy with all that I’ve done the past couple of months! In the next two weeks I will have my finished edited film project, which will include a three-part series documenting the people I talked with, and an abridged version that will include the highlights of the interviews in one video.

Here is a trailer I made for my project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dreXQHYxhck&t=6s

Putting the Pieces Together

Now that I have completed my travels and almost all of my interviews, I want to begin putting laptop; video editor; books pieces together and reflect on what I have learned so far this summer. To help tie my findings together, I’ve been reading Dan Rather’s What Unites Us and Rushworth Kidder’s How Good People Make Tough Choices. The first is more related to the political aspect of my project, and the second is more about the ethics.

I started off this project by creating a survey to use as a guide for my interviews and as a way to check to see if there were any similarities or differences between the survey responses and the interview responses, as one was anonymous and one wasn’t. What I have noticed is that the interviews have reflected the survey results for the most part, but, in my opinion, there seemed to be a lot more introspection and deeper reflection in the interviews than the survey responses. For example, when I asked people in the survey what morals, out of a choice of 12 common ones, they strove to achieve on a daily basis, with the exception of two, each option was chosen over 75%. In the interviews, however, most people told me they lose sight of their own values when they get into debates over politics because in the heat of the moment, as one person said, “you’re thinking about how you can win the argument, not about your morals. Only after the fact do you think ‘maybe I was being a little too harsh.’”

Another thing I noticed to be different is that I think people were more honest in the surveys simply because it was anonymous. In my survey, 70% of people said that it is important they stay up to date with current news. But in the interviews, I can only recall one person saying that he did not actively stay up to date with the news. Along these lines, in addition to being up to date with current political events, almost everyone said they fact-check their information with sources that oppose their political views. The two most common responses in the interviews were either people who watch FOX News and occasionally check CNN or MSNBC or vice versa. I found that interesting as well because in the survey, only 58% of people said that having a variety of news sources is important to them. While I don’t think any of the interviewees are necessarily dishonest, I think when being filmed on camera there is a urge to not be as truthful about things that could make you look less credible.

I did find one example that is contrary to my thinking that the surveys are more honest than the interviews. In the survey, 25% of people said they tend to judge people who have different political views as them before they get to know them well, but nearly all the people in my interviews admitted to having preconceived biases about politics that affect the way they see people before they get to know them. I think this is partly due to the way I phrased the two (because in the survey it was phrased as a statement whereas in the interviews I asked it as a question) and also because, like I mentioned early, the interviewees seemed more reflective. In How Good People Make Tough Choices, Kidder writes about the “Nine Checkpoints of Ethical Decision-Making,” in which the first checkpoint is “recognize there is a moral issue” and the second checkpoint is “determine the actor.” I think that when it comes to the issue of personal political bias, on a surface level, there is a tendency to think that we are immune from this bias and we assume that we are not the actor and skip over the rest of the nine checkpoints. This is reflective of the results I talked about in one of my first letters where, in my survey, only 15% of all respondents thought their answers to a previous section were politically biased, yet 86% of all respondents thought that other people would answer in a politically biased way.

When I was reading What Unites Us, a quote that stuck out to me was this: “We often hear about how we need to be more tolerant: to make room for people, ideas, and actions with which we may not agree. This is a prerequisite for a functional democracy. But tolerance alone is not sufficient; it allows us to accept others without engaging with them, to feel smug and self-satisfied without challenging the boundaries within which too many of us live.” I hope that with the people I have talked to in my interviews, if they could take away one message, it would be that. Not only did I go into the interviews wanting to understand different people’s points of view and learning about who they are, but I wanted them to think about politics and their own biases and values in a way they might not have thought about before, to think about the issue more critically than surface-level. At the beginning of this summer, I would have thought that being tolerant of others’ views is the moral and ethical way to approach this topic, but I’ve learned throughout this experience that it’s more than that – it’s having a commitment to challenging your own biases every day.

Letter 5

As I wrap up my time in Dallas (during one of the hottest weeks in Texas’ history), I want to tell you how I got here, what I have done, and what I have learned. A driving factor for me to want to go to Dallas for this project is because my grandparents on my dad’s side live there. Besides my uncle on my mom’s side, they are the only conservatives in my family, and over the years, many of my relatives have gotten into disagreements with my grandfather over politics. And when I say disagreements, I mean very heated, uncivil arguments. I have never been on a family trip with both my dad and my grandpa where they didn’t at least once vehemently shout at each other for over an hour about how terrible Obama or Trump they thought was/is. Recognizing my biases, I have always sided with my dad in these arguments and dismissed my grandfather’s arguments as just being a FOX News rundown. I had personally never talked to my grandpa about his political views and honestly never wanted to because I thought they were ignorant.

I realized that when it comes to politics, the family unit is where so much of people’s views are formed, challenged, and evolved. These kinds of conversations, in my experience, happen so frequently because when you are surrounded by your family, you are in a safe space; when disagreeing with a parent’s political views, you don’t run the risk of endangering a relationship as much as with a friend, for example. For my project this summer, I wanted one portion of it to revolve around the family unit, so I chose to go to Dallas. Along with my grandfather, I had the opportunity to talk with my aunt’s boyfriend, my 97 year-old great-grandfather, my second cousin, and a close friend who goes to Duke, all of whom live in Dallas.

The biggest takeaway of my time in Dallas is realizing that when it comes to political debates within our family, there is a lot of misunderstanding that leads to fighting and aggressiveness. Before interviewing my grandpa, I was expecting him to praise Trump and say how great FOX News is. Actually, however, he told me how he really dislikes Trump as a person, but only supports him because of his policies. He also told me that he’s aware of how biased news sources like FOX News are, that he doesn’t like most of the FOX anchors, and that he to fact checks his sources with the New York Times and Washington Post and even CNN and MSNBC. After talking with him for a little bit, I realized why I was initially so shocked at many of his answers when I asked him about the debates he gets in with other family members. “When I talk to someone like you dad, he likes to argue, and he wants to win his argument. He gives talking points rather than what he really feels, parroting back what these [politicians] want you to say and hear…it’s like being programmed. He wants to press his points and doesn’t want to listen. Then I get hooked into it and I’m falling into the same trap.” I found his last point so fascinating because he admitted that when it comes to these arguments, it’s hard to not let your emotions get in the way of presenting your side of the debate. As a result, the argument gets nowhere and both parties often fail to realize that they probably see eye-to-eye on more than they think, as was my case before interviewing my grandpa.

I also talked to my friend Carolyn Huynh, who is a rising sophomore at Duke and one of Carolyn; Friend; Kenan Sunglasses my close friends. She had an interesting perspective because she had grown up in a conservative city, but her Asian-American identity influenced her and her family’s liberal political values. She brought up that she noticed there was a difference in political ideology generationally, which I asked my grandfather about afterwards. From her perspective, she noticed the older generation, such as people like my grandparents, are more conservative and that people in our generation are more liberal. When asking my grandfather about this, he said he didn’t really notice a difference politically, but he did think that the country’s values had moved away from hard-working, pull yourself up by the bootstraps standards which he attributes to an overall shift in political values across generations. Carolyn, however, believed it to be more of a generational group-think that varied among age groups. I also talked with her about the political scene on Duke’s campus, and she said she noticed that an issue that can prevent productive conversations happening is that people tend to surround themselves with others who think the same way as they do, which is something I have noticed too.

Trying make sure there was an even balance demographically in my interviews, I interviewed a second cousin of mine, who is around my and Carolyn’s age. He, unlike most of the people my age I know, is a republican and Trump supporter, which he said is common for the suburb of Dallas he lives in. I was extremely curious about his stances on politics because he suffers from severe hemophilia, which is exceptionally expensive to care for. I asked him, why from a healthcare stance, he would support the republican agenda. Interestingly, he told me that policy-wise, he mainly sides with republican stances on issues like immigration, Russia, North Korea, and taxes, but the one thing he doesn’t support is the republicans’ push to get rid of Obamacare. He noted that it’s a dilemma for him because politics is so polarized that it’s hard for him to stick up for his opinion on healthcare. “It’s black or white these days, and it feels like you’re not allowed to be in the middle of the spectrum on certain things,” he said about the issue.

I was able to talk to a few other people in my time in Dallas, which will be included in my final film along with the three I wrote about, which I’ve begun editing this week. I love making videos, so I’m excited to begin this part of my project. I head home from Dallas today, which concludes all of my travels this summer, but I will continue interviewing people in North Carolina, where I live.

Letter 4

Coming from the rather moderate temperature of Indiana, walking out of the Las Vegas airport into a scorching 109-degree heat was quite a different scene – not only in terms of weather, but also in terms of the city and the people. Vegas instantly felt like the antithesis of small-town Warsaw with flashing lights, mountains to my left and right, and casinos everywhere I turned. I’ve only been to Las Vegas once before, but I was too young to remember. I was born here, but my parents moved to North Carolina when I was just 2 years old, which is one of the reasons I wanted to visit the city.

My time in Vegas was action-packed. Not only did I get to explore the city and learn about its Supreme Court of Nevadahistory, I had the opportunity to talk to some incredible people while I was there. I started off my first morning by going to the Nevada Supreme Court. I had the honor of interviewing the chief Supreme Court judge, Justice Michael Douglas. He has been on the Supreme Court since 2004, and his term will end in 2019. He is one of the most insightful and articulate people I have ever talked to, and what stuck out to me was how thoughtful he was with his answers to my questions. I asked him about difficult decisions he had to make in the past, ones that might lie in an ethical gray-area. He told me he has to make extremely tough decisions every day, like death penalty cases where a person’s life is at stake, and that there are times when he struggles with the fact that the law is ultimately the code by which he has to abide, not his own values. He mentioned that occasionally there are things he does as a judge that he doesn’t necessarily agree with but has to do being bound by the Constitution. Additionally, there are times when he and his fellow justices don’t come to a consensus and can get into disagreements. Regarding this issue, he said, “Every decision is personal, but it can’t be personal where you want to fight about it afterwards. You can’t be so distraught about the last decision that it affects your next decisions, where it affects the next person’s life or liberty.” Justice Douglas made many more thought-provoking comments, which I will be including in my short documentary film.

Next, I talked with Judge Jerome Tao, who was appointed to the Nevada Court of Appeals in 2014 but served as a District Court judge prior to that. I wanted to interview a couple judges because their part of their responsibility is to be nonpartisan, so I was curious to see their perspectives on the very partisan political climate of 2018. Especially because Nevada judges run for election, I wanted to know what challenges Judge Tao faced in separating the personal from the political. “It is not my job to represent the voters of the state; it’s sometimes my job to make them very unhappy because that is what my job requires,” he told me. When asking him about party bias and how divisive US politics seems, he told me that one of the good things about the court system is that it’s like a last realm of civility, where people come making honest arguments on merits and not personal attacks like we see in everyday life. Something interesting he brought up was the issue of contextualizing a case. Is it ethical to punish a person who shoplifted from a large store, even though what he stole was diapers and food for his baby, in the same way as a person who wasn’t struggling to support a family? This was a difficult case Judge Tao was responsible for, and he said that he gave the person probation, a sentence that would be considered mild for the crime.

The next day I interviewed Nevada State Senate member Tick Segerblom. Unlike the two previous judges I talked to who, for obvious reasons, did not talk about their personal political beliefs, Senator Segerblom was very vocal about his, and unlike the others, he was very short and to the point with his answers to my questions. He is a fourth generation Nevada representative, so most of his political opinions were influenced by his family. He is an extremely liberal person, even calling himself a Communist, and he led the effort to legalize marijuana in Nevada. When asking him about the challenges he faces as a politician in such a divisive political era, he said, “people who are elected are much more polarized, to the point where nowadays they are too scared to reach across the aisle.” He noted many times when his political differences with others inhibited progress from being made legislatively and times where in the interest of gaining power, people have made decisions that benefit themselves and not the people they represent. These things make it hard to be true to one’s core beliefs and values. And from a personal perspective, he told me political bias is something that affects him every day, to the point where many times he doesn’t want to interact with republicans at all because of what they believe. However, he mentioned that there are times when he makes an effort to look past those biases, saying “You’ll go to parties and people will be there with different philosophies, and the key is to figure out where they’re coming from before you start saying ‘[expletive] Trump.’”

I spent much more time in Las Vegas, where I talked to more people including Nevada Assemblyman Elliot Anderson and his wife Suzanne Bierman, who works in healthcare policy. Their interviews were also very insightful and will be included in my end-of-summer film. My next stop on my trip will be Dallas, Texas!

Letter 3

I’m writing this letter from Warsaw, Indiana. If you don’t know where that is, it’s about 2 Welcome To Warsaw; sign post; City of Lakeshours north of Indianapolis, has a population of 14,000, and is known as “The Orthopedic Capital of the World.” The reason I chose this location out of so many cities around the country is because this is the city in which my mom grew up. As a result, she was able to tell me about what the city was like from her perspective, and how it has changed from when she was a kid. Warsaw is a relatively small, rural city, especially compared to the ones I plan to travel to in the coming weeks. But its bucolic nature is something I’m no stranger to, as I had grown up in a similar environment. I’ve been here for six days now, and I’m about to leave for my next leg of my trip to Las Vegas, so I’m excited to share what I have been doing here.

Coming to Indiana, I knew the state has historically been pretty red politically. Warsaw, especially, from what I had heard from my mom, is also very conservative in this sense. Having this in the back of my head, I wanted to talk to people from the area from both majority and minority viewpoints. Finding “random,” everyday people to interview, though, was not necessarily an easy task. A lot of these people I ended up talking to or interviewing were through family connections and/or reaching out through social media. Ultimately, however, I’m really happy with the people I got to talk to and what I learned from them.

I started off by interviewing a mother and her son (both of whom are well into adulthood), who had, for the most part, varying political views: the mother identified as a republican; the son a democrat. Because my political background was heavily influenced by my family, I was mainly curious to know why their viewpoints differed and why this happened. The mother explained that she grew up conservative, and her views were shaped largely from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It was only later in her life that she began to rethink what her beliefs actually meant to her. She said that a lot of what the values many conservatives held (notably about abortion, LGBTQ rights, immigration) did not reflect her core values. Her son, on the other hand, said that although there are issues with the republican party he doesn’t necessarily agree with, his beliefs most closely reflect conservative ideals, which he thinks is important from a voting standpoint. From an ethical perspective, they both agreed that ethics doesn’t seem to have much of a place in politics, and as the son pointed out, in politics it can be easy to confuse ethics with opinions.

I then interviewed a couple who lived in the area only during the summer – the rest of the year they teach in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I thought the two men had an interesting perspective on the current state of politics for many reasons: they are a liberal gay interracial couple who live in a conservative city for a few months each year and then live outside the US for the remaining months of the year. Knowing this, I thought that they would have little contact with current American politics when they are in Africa. They told me, however, that when they are abroad, they often hear negative things like “how could you let such a person become president” or “the United States can’t be taken seriously now” in such a way that they felt partially responsible for the current presidency. They said that a positive effect of being abroad is that they can filter their information in a more unbiased way, through sources like BBC that report US politics, in their opinion, more impartially. Being in the States, they added, is more tempting to just have CNN or MSNBC on, which are more slanted sources. Living in Indiana, close to many people with views that differ from theirs, they say can be challenging because they often get into disagreements over political issues, but they both deal with conflict in different ways: one admitted he was much more aggressive on social media and liked to push back on people’s views, while the other liked to remain more reserved, using his experience as a teacher to actively listen to what other people had to say even if he disagreed with it. They both agreed that a lot of times political bias can impact their perceptions of other people and that it’s hard to avoid tribalism when it comes to politics, but they said that an important lesson they learned as educators to help combat this is what they call “The 3 P’s”: Pausing, Paraphrasing, and Probing. Pausing to give time to listen to what someone has to say, paraphrasing to receive confirmation that they understand what someone is saying, and probing to ask questions rather than attack someone’s ideas. I was extremely grateful to be able to sit down with these two and hear what they had to say, especially because of the unique perspective they shared.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing the mayor of Warsaw, Joe Thallemer. Going into the interview, I was curious about how he dealt with ethical dilemmas in his work as a mayor because his decisions don’t nearly affect as many people as, for example, those of a state governor. When I talked with him, he said that for the most part he feels that the decisions he makes on a day-to-day basis are impacted most by his own beliefs and values. But there are times, such as when it comes time for reelection, that there can be pressures to cater to the voting population. He said that there are cases that he would potentially have to go against his values to uphold his duty as mayor. For example, he mentioned that although this has never happened for Warsaw, if a sexually-oriented business were to want to open in the city, he cannot turn them down even though he personally disagrees with them. Similarly, if marijuana became legal in Indiana, he would have to grapple with allowing dispensaries in the city. He also noted that he thinks politics can make people power-hungry. From the people he has worked with, he said that the higher up the ranks some people go, he noticed the further they lose touch with who they used to be. I found this to be especially thought-provoking because one of the reasons why I wanted to research this topic is because when I think of politics, I don’t associate it at all with ethics. I will be travelling to Las Vegas in the next week where I will be interviewing politicians who have more influence than Mayor Thallemer, so I am curious to explore this issue of power more in depth with the people I meet in Nevada.

In the next week, I will be talking to the chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court, a Nevada appellate judge, a Nevada state senator, and a Nevada assemblyman and his wife, who is an assistant Medicaid director