I was disagreeing with my mom about immigration a few months ago when she said, you think you are smarter than me because you have education but you don’t know anything about real life, you don’t even know any actual illegal immigrants so how do you know anything about immigration. I sputtered back like the sulky, indignant 16-year-old I become whenever I am arguing with my mom, yes I do, Mom, I talk to the Bolivian woman who has been cleaning my home every two weeks for over a decade! She wasn’t actually undocumented but we talk about politics every time she is here because I work from home and am usually eating a Sweetgreen salad while she cleans the kitchen. She tells me stories about the members of her Spanish-speaking church who voted for the president because he promised to overturn Roe v. Wade and her worries for the undocumented members of her community. I haven’t been able to excise my mother’s not entirely untrue accusation from my head. And I cannot discredit her lived experience.
Around the same time, I read the book “Educated” and heard the author Tara Westover speak at a conference. She said, our education should not be weaponized, education should make you want to learn more and to inquire with humility. Ever since, I have been obsessively pondering the ways in which I have used my education as a weapon, the times I have responded with disdain, the times my certainty has silenced another.
When I was invited to participate on a radio show to talk about civil discourse and the Blueberries & Cherries politically diverse dinners I have been organizing since the 2016 election, I was pretty excited to share the lessons I have learned from engaging with politically divergent people. By the end of the show, though, I felt like my opinion on the subject of civil discourse had been discounted. I arrived at the radio station feeling a little insecure that I had not published a book or taught at a major university like my fellow panelists. My insecurities were confirmed when my efforts to organize meaningful conversations across the political divide and provide opportunities to form relationships with people you might not normally meet were framed as merely fun dinner parties. I inferred from the conversation that the greatest accomplishment I could claim from these dinners was that everyone left feeling good about themselves for having participated. The underlying subtext was that nothing of real substance had been accomplished. I received a pat on the head from my co-panelist for having felt good about myself afterward, too, because in these dark political days, all liberals want to feel good about having done something.
If I had been asked what had made the gatherings more than just a fun night of feeling good about ourselves, I would have told them about the art show I’d curated on the theme of immigration and what it means to be a good American, and how those art works became the frame for our conversation at dinner tables set in the museum that night. I would have told them how much time I’d spent ensuring a diversity of guests so that the tables weren’t filled with the usual Washington dinner party types. I would have told them how hard it had been to dig deep into my networks to invite enough conservatives to balance out the evening’s political spectrum in a city that is 94% Democrats. I would have told them about the program I carefully crafted to help humanize one another before we even started talking about politics. I would have told them that I can’t guarantee dinners will lead to immediate change in our political discourse and policy. Those things will take more time and effort way beyond the dinner party. However, the relationships that form over these art-fueled conversations will eventually play a role in the transformation of our society.
Immediately following the radio show, I went to lunch with a Republican friend who has attended two of my dinners. We have met for drinks before and laughed a lot together, listened to each other’s divergent views, and found slivers of agreement between us. At lunch today, we talked about the movie BlackkKlansman, the Squirrel Hill synagogue murders, and the Kavanaugh confirmation. We moved each other in incremental ways on some things, and on other things, gained a deeper understanding of each other’s view. Then she helped me think through a proposal I’m nervous about writing and gave me a pep talk on asking for an amount of money that was far from what I thought I deserved and much closer to what I actually deserved.
By the end of lunch, I realized I didn’t need to have the academic credentials or data to prove I knew what it took to engage in civil discourse with people whose political views differed from mine and to prove that it was an important thing to do in the first place. I was living it. I was not at all mad about the experience on the radio show. I relish any opportunity to examine and scrutinize myself and human nature, in general. The conversation helped me feel more empathy for the millions of people who feel condescension from liberal East Coast elite types, me being both one of those liberal East Coast elite types and a casualty of the condescension.
Listen to the radio show here.