A Recent Unpleasantness

I had a “conversation” the other night with some long-time Democrats.  The quotation marks matter because, mostly, I got talked at.  As long as we stayed on the topic of President Trump, all was well.  They vented their spleen, and I nodded in agreement, knowing we were absolutely on common ground.  

But as soon as the subject shifted to anything else—education, religion, sports, race—things got awkward.  If I mentioned any small point that didn’t jive with their established ideologies, I got the not-so-subtle, sneering eye-roll.  

We shared a disgust with Fox News as the propaganda arm of the Republican Party.  But these folks clearly couldn’t hear themselves spouting out parallel MSNBC talking points. They were utterly blind to their own closed-mindedness, completely oblivious to their own condescending, lecturing tone.  I survived, but let’s just say, it’s not easy being lectured on openness and tolerance by self-righteous hypocrites.

Here’s a “for instance:” I graduated from a public high school.  My wife and I sent our three children to public schools.  I know first-hand the problems that public schools face.  I also have spent the last 38 years working in private, independent schools.  Having a foot in both worlds gives me valuable perspective.  

I’m qualified to critique public education, and I think I have workable solutions to some of the systemic problems that public schools face.  Yet any mention of trying to improve public education caused a sort of apoplexy among my Democratic friends.  They heard any critique, no matter how minor, as an attack on public education and were quick to accuse anyone with ideas for desperately needed change as trying to “defund public schools.” One accused me of “unintentional racism,” and another, because I work at an all-boys school, of overt sexism.  And the kicker:  Most of these folks sent their own children to private schools.

On religion, their views were equally stultifying.  Evangelicals who voted for Trump have become for them an easy shorthand for all Christianity.  They paint with a very broad brush, lumping all Christians together as judgmental, intolerant simpletons.  The idea that there might be thoughtful Christians who are horrified at Trump, but who also see their faith as under attack by a hostile culture is too nuanced for their rigid belief system.  

On topic after topic, the dynamic was the same.  True conversation was impossible because these folks simply were too invested, too entrenched in their own dogmatic views.  Their “conversation” consisted of clichéd claptrap.  I got tired before I got angry.

Consider:  I’m a high school English teacher. Every year I teach Hamlet, and every year the same thing happens.  At least one student (usually more) for whom Shakespeare is new makes an observation about the play that’s fresh, something I’ve never considered before.  Suddenly, a play I thought I knew backwards and forwards comes alive again.  It happens every year, and it’s the kind of thing that makes my job genuinely rewarding.  

Now, if I wanted, I could simply lecture my students on Hamlet.  I could insist on the “right” interpretation and then test them on it.  After all, I’m older than they are.  I’m more experienced, and I know more than they do.  But such an approach would be death to my classroom.  In literature or in politics, dogma closes off true inquiry, true discovery, true progress.

So…

I don’t care how right you think you are.  Please, don’t lecture me.  Please, don’t cram your stale ideas down my throat, because I just might vomit.  Let me think for myself; let me consider all sides.  Maybe even let me get a word in edge-wise.

Our lives depend on it.