By Zeus Sumra
Published: December 7th, 2016
I came across an interesting interview on National Public Radio (NPR) of renowned British novelist Zadie Smith on nostalgia in reference to her new novel, Swing Time. What struck me the most was that Smith, one of several modern novelists who push for a revolution of the black diaspora through literature, said that “listening to conflicting viewpoints helps her find a place of connection with people whose beliefs are different from her own…” Smith went on to say that there is an “optimism in individual people” that we cannot afford to lose sight of even when ringleaders such as presidential candidates and political commentators bring out the worst in their followers. We can only break political boundaries when we stop having impassioned, recalcitrant debates. Rather, we must begin to have honest conversations with not only those who are against our political movements, but also those in support of them.
A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with my catholic friends in the basement of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral during a religious function. I was not ready for the conversation that I ignited when I shared with them that I had finally written my first article for the Excelsior. “Oh my, that’s great!” one said, “What did you write about?” I hesitated in responding, uncertain of what their reaction would be when I told them; the subject of my opinion piece, Protest the President, might not be as welcomed in a Catholic Church, a power house in the pro-life movement and restoration of many conservative issues. “Oh, it’s about how we should all allow each other to express how they feel as is their democratic right,” I replied, sugar-coating the blatant anti-Trump article that I had spent hours writing. The predominantly one-way conversation went on as I listened to my fellow Catholics vent about how they felt slighted by people who made it seem that those who voted for Donald Trump should not voice their opinions. Others said that they did not understand why people were so upset. Yet another group commented that people at their jobs or in classes at school were overreacting on the Wednesday that the Trump presidency was confirmed.
I contemplated the encounter for a week, wondering why I felt the need to not voice how I felt among my friends from church. I also thought about their experiences following the election. During that time, I had given a lot of thought to the tone of both everyday conversations and those in the media that pertained to politics—palliated, angry (especially more recently) and ineffective. What is worse is that this type of conversation does not only happen when people are part of different movements; it even happens between those who work in similar political movements.
I am almost sure that my Catholic friends who know that I am pro-life expect me to also support movements to stop same-sex marriage. In the same way, many of my friends with whom I share the passion to protect immigrants expect me to also protest for pro-choice movements and to save Planned Parenthood. I believe that a political environment of strict labeling and the expectations attached to these labels makes it difficult for us to have conversations that help us understand even those with whom we share some political beliefs.
This division within movements can create problems for activists and observers alike. A friend of mine expressed that she was not fully in support of the protests because protestors did not have a unified front. Some were protesting against the threat to document all Muslims, others about the increase of black men dying at the hands of law enforcement, while others feared a reversal of the Supreme Court’s ruling to allow same sex marriage in all fifty states.
We may protest for different causes, but does this mean that we cannot work together? This point of view brings light to the cracks and crevices that make many movements for equal rights ineffective, but it does not mean it has to hinder the ability of diverse groups to work together.
Dialogue within social justice movements will not happen if we are quick to slight others by not giving them a fair chance to express their opinions, but it will also not happen if we sugar coat what we say. There has been a push among right-wingers to throw political correctness out the window and I must say that I agree. Left-wingers must apply this to themselves as well by being deeply honest about their opinions. I definitely cannot leave out our free thinkers, supporters of third party candidates, and others with diverse political views; we all need to join this conversation.
Granted, not all conversations will end with your opponent agreeing with you, but the key is to not have an opponent in the first place. We are all part of the tapestry of this country and we must seek to strengthen it. We need to start a new trend of conversation in the political environment—one that allows citizens to feel safe, does away with labels, and leads to effective communication between people on all sides of the spectrum.