Choosing to See the Humanity in the Elephant
“America’s getting to a place where it feels like it is extremely divided along partisan lines, and conversations have shifted to a point where human beings no longer see a human being on the other side of the discussion.”
When I heard Trevor Noah say this in an interview with Oprah, I thought to myself “This is exactly what I want to figure out.” Why is politics such a source of conflict? Why can it bring out the nasty side in people? And why do people tend to stand behind political parties and politicians so firmly?
I have no desire to become a politician or to study political science or public policy, yet politics is something I’m curious about – not because it’s such a widely discussed issue in the United States, but because there seems to be fascinating psychology behind the way it impacts and influences people. One of the reasons I wanted to do my project on this topic was because in addition to seeing first-hand how people can demonize others solely based on their political opinions, I’ve personally been a perpetrator of hatefulness on the basis of politics. In my opinion, a contributing factor to this animosity is a stubbornness and an unwillingness to look past one’s biases; as a result, part of my project aims to look at how people’s political biases affect their daily lives.
So I’ll start of by stating my biases: I’m a democrat, and I grew up in a liberal household in a conservative city. I grew up biased against republicans and for what they stood. Although I knew very little about the two parties’ platforms on various issues, I admittedly just adopted the same mentality of my parents. When I was in middle school, politics wasn’t something any of my peers really talked about in school; there was an implicit understanding that everybody aligned to a particular party (nearly always the one their parents supported), but you would never hear of middle schoolers getting into an argument about why they thought the Iraq War was necessary or not. At the same time, though, I understood that almost all of my peers were republicans, and I couldn’t help but let that influence my perceptions of them. Even though at that age politics was something that was nearly always out of sight, it still negatively impacted the way I saw the people around me because I perceived their views to be wrong in some capacity. Looking back, to an extent, I subconsciously believed myself to be morally superior to them, which created negative feelings toward them.
As I got older, and when people my age began being vocal about politics, my negative feelings toward republicans intensified. Why? When I was younger, though it affected my perceptions of them, I could largely ignore the fact that my peers had different political affiliations from me. But I got the impression from adults and media that when it came to politics, there was a right side and a wrong side. Things like learning why my parents refused to watch FOX News or why in their opinion some media outlets were better than others because they were skewed left, I picked up on the black-and-white nature of politics. My liberal upbringing, as a result, instilled in me that democrats were on the good side. And until my junior year in high school, I remained firm in that ideology, mainly because I got complacent in that mindset and could avoid conflict by keeping my views to myself. But in my junior year of high school (which was a boarding school), I roomed with a republican and could no longer avoid political confrontation. We would get into petty arguments or have late-night disagreements over issues like gun control, immigration, economic policies, and…the election. It was the year Donald Trump announced he would be running for president, Hillary Clinton launched her “I’m with her” campaign, and the 76 year-old Independent, Bernie Sanders, from Vermont won over the hearts of so many millennials. Hearing about why he thought Trump was a good person or why Clinton deserved to be imprisoned made me sick, and I was ready for the school year to be over so I wouldn’t have to room with him anymore.
By the end of my junior year, I came to the conclusion that donkeys and elephants just couldn’t be friends. I guess I was just too sick of being right and being morally superior. So I carried on with that attitude fully expecting Hillary Clinton to become president…until she didn’t. It was a slap in the face. But it was a necessary slap in the face for me. How ignorant of me to have thought my political opinions were more than opinions. For a long time I had a toxic mindset in which I viewed people with differing political views as wrong and inferior. There was nothing wrong with not wanting to be roommates with someone of differing political stances, but to me, the way I was mentally denigrating republicans on the sole basis of their political views didn’t align with my values. Taking time to reflect after the election, I realized I had the option to either continue letting people’s political stances overshadow my perception of them, or I could choose to see the humanity in the elephant.