(And I’m okay with that!)
I want to share my personal experience with the progression of my political outlook. Not because I think the views that I have or have held are particularly interesting or unique, but because of what it illustrates about growth and understanding and the importance of the willingness to adapt, at least for me individually.
I grew up in Lancaster County, PA. While not as conservative as a small town in Texas, it is a relatively conservative area. My first memories of being politically aware involve the 2004 election. Almost all of my classmates claimed to support George Bush (which is laughable, as we were like, 9 years old, and I have no idea how this conversation began). From what I knew of politics (AKA most likely my family’s spirited discussions at get-togethers) I simply knew that I was not “supposed” to like George Bush (see: political socialization). As a result of the clash between my beliefs and the apparent beliefs of those by whom I was surrounded, the strength of my own beliefs increased, as I felt isolated, alienated, and misunderstood. As a child!
I think that if I had grown up in an environment where there was more diversity of thought, politically, my passion for politics would never have developed as it did, because it would not have been as prominent an aspect of my life as it was when I spent every day thinking “how can I hold such different beliefs from those around me? And how can all these people think the things that they do?” My consequent interest in politics prompted me to make my one friend who called herself a Democrat a John Kerry necklace out of paper. It also inspired this lovely piece of artwork, courtesy of 4th grade me.
It’s not that my entire family is “liberal,” it’s just that the outspoken side was. I happen to have a father who loves hunting and fishing, has no interest in politics whatsoever [especially if it involves interrupting his regularly scheduled enjoyment of football], and sees “staying out of his life” as the only role that government should play. I don’t explain my family’s perspectives to denounce or pass judgment on either side, because I hear them both.
The ability to understand both sides of an issue is a skill that I intentionally started fostering a few years ago. First, I was somewhat forced to take a free market economics class as an aspect of a summer internship program. This class called into question some of my assumptions and beliefs about the world, but I tried my best to be open minded and I can honestly say that it was one of the most educational experiences during my college career. I still do not agree with every single argument advanced within the course, but I can much more fully appreciate them. Additionally, in college I participated in Maryland Student Legislature (MSL), which is an awesome organization that models the Maryland state legislature, encouraging students to write and debate their own legislation. My participation in this club led to friendships and conversations with people of all political affiliations and beliefs.
Both of these experiences were fundamental to my development as a person. They didn’t necessarily shape my views in any concrete way, but they certainly shaped the way that I think. I have learned to constantly be open to assessing and challenging my beliefs, and to apply this in every facet of my life. I am no longer afraid of “being wrong.” I think the fear of being wrong stems from a deeper fear that if one is wrong, then a belief that is important to them, or even their entire belief structure, is called into question. When you mentally detach yourself from your beliefs, treating them not as truth but as incidental consequences of your current understanding of what is logically true, then you can constantly refine your belief structure so that it does reflect truth rather than what you wish to be true.
When I realized how crazy it is to keep arguing against somebody who has a really good point, but one that seems to contradict your own core beliefs, I had to reevaluate the way I approached conflicts with my own perspective. If somebody advances an argument that you really cannot contradict, then it is time to reassess your own beliefs. The only thing stopping you is your own pride.
I am not here to say that I have disavowed all of my prior political beliefs. No, there is still a 4th grader Alex within me, who is inspired by a passion for what is fair and just, and who thinks this should be a political priority above all else, and I do believe that this causes me to align more naturally with one party than the other. However, there have recently been many situations where, the more I learn about a political issue, the less I feel I actually know.
The more I realize how complex government and policymaking are, the less I’m willing to accept as “correct” policy solutions that oversimplify issues and fail to account for many real life consequences. The more I learn about how little the voting public actually knows about politics, the less inspired I feel by the idea of democracy (but hey, it’s the best we’ve got). The more I learn about how injustice has systemic, sociological, and individual choice causes and consequences, the less at ease I feel with certain political remedies, and the less faith I have in their effective execution. The more I learn about polarization these days (example 1, example 2, example 3) , the less I’m sure that a two-party system can effectively satisfy their political wishes. The more I learn about the tendency for people to reject information that is factually accurate but that that does not accommodate their belief structure, while accepting misinformation and bad arguments as evidence for their own beliefs, the more I wonder why everybody can’t just be more open minded so that these tendencies don’t exist.
Why everybody can’t just accept how little they actually know? We should all be wary of the tendency within ourselves and within others to claim omniscience on any topic. Particularly those with a vested interest in convincing others that their knowledge is superior.
Would we be so polarized if we separated our self from our beliefs? Would we then take it as a personal attack if others did not agree with us?
Personally, I think that detaching myself from my beliefs– i.e., no longer embracing them as an identifying characteristic– has been the best thing I could have done. In fact, it actually changed the direction of my life path. When I was certain about the problems I could identify in the world, and certain that I could be a part of the solution and that I had the “right” idea about what that solution was, I believed I was destined to be an active participant in law and politics. Then came the period in which my mentality transformed. When I finally decided that my curiosity about the truths of the world actually outweighed my need to feel like an active player in the political world, I decided that a Ph.D. was a more appropriate path. As of right now, I could not be happier with that decision.
However, regardless of whether it impacts one’s life path in any concrete way, I still believe that it is essential to reevaluate the way that we approach information that conflicts with our beliefs.
Opening your mind leads to opportunities for self-development and improvement. Keeping your mind closed leads to stagnancy, intellectual plateau, and prohibits self-growth.