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Right and Wrong

Opinion | October 12, 2015

“That’s just your leftist, liberal arts language talking.” My father said this to me neither maliciously nor pointedly, but with the absolute intention of challenging me. These words, uttered on a cozy summer evening, floated above the coffee table separating the two of us and entered my brain. His comment had affected me much differently than those of my peers’ during political conversations. The topic: second-generation immigrants from Western countries forsaking their nations to join ISIS. As a Tufts student, you may already know the question I posed—inspired, in fact, by one of my best friend’s papers: Could it be that anti-Arab immigration policies and environments in nations such as France ostracize the younger, in-between generation so strongly that they see acceptance and opportunity in the idea of an Islamic caliphate?

I was caught off guard by my father’s reaction. But upon reflection, I understand that I was naïve to assume he would understand my viewpoint. After all, our realities are not remotely similar—he is an immigrant who left Egypt for the United States when he was 26 years old, an Arab-Christian who has seen persecution and discrimination in his home country all his life, and a man who was not politically educated from schooling, but from experience and personal enrichment. I, on the other hand, am a first-generation Egyptian-American, am much more connected to the culture of the United States, and am a Peace & Justice Studies major at a liberal arts institution. Rather passionately, my father criticized my removed, apologist tone. He reminded me of ISIS cruelty, (rightfully) criticized my lack of actual knowledge on the issue, and insinuated that much of social justice thought takes a one-size-fits-all, “right” perspective on issues without much deep investigation into the realities of specific situations.

Three months later, I am fairly sure I do not agree with my father’s stance on ISIS, but I also know that I no longer agree with the unsubstantiated rationale that I threw out so confidently. I acted as if only I, and people who agree with me, knew the true facts about a situation that I had no real stake in and about which I did not know much. Honestly, my main justification for posing such a pointed question was not due to a real attachment to the issue, but rather due to the pompous belief that because the argument seemed to align with my perspective of how the world works, my assumption was more valid than a nuanced understanding. My father, with his personal convictions, awareness, and commitment to following Arab news challenged not my opinion, but that presumptuous perspective. And in the end, I learned more deeply.

Normally, I would not find myself conversing with so-called moderates, defensive Christians, or, to be frank, men above the age of 22. Honestly, three months ago, I probably would have written these people off, already categorizing their beliefs to be wrong. Right and wrong. Right and wrong. The entitled assumption that I could see others—whole people—as either right or wrong was a mentality I never even acknowledged to be present in myself.

To clarify, it is not a problem to disagree with someone’s perspective, or to believe that there are right opinions and wrong opinions, but I am starting to realize that rejecting perspectives different from my point of view dangerously limits my awareness of the infinite realities present around me. So long as I continue to disregard rather than to disagree, I will find myself dangerously reducing my learning. This is not a hypothetical situation. In fact, boxing myself into conversations that are only accessible to people like me, with people who may not agree with me, but certainly relate to my perspective, has been the norm since coming to university. There is this pernicious perception that those who do not align themselves with a certain checklist of viewpoints are literally—and I have both witnessed and participated in this blatant exclusion—not worth talking to. Often, this refusal to engage with those unlike us comes from valid places of discomfort and fear. However, I am beginning to find this wariness to be a very poisonous justification, resulting in the creation of communities that are, ironically, so homogenous that they can never make the progress they so desperately believe in.

When I was 12, my history teacher engaged our class in a debate about taxation. It was undoubtedly the most simplified debate that could have existed on the topic: should a flat tax rate exist? Confidently, I stood up in front of my class and advocated in the positive. Of course a flat tax rate should exist; 5 percent for Tommy should be 5 percent for Timmy because percentages are inherently fair! After class, a fellow student came up to me and told me, “Lauren… 5 percent for Tommy who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year may be a higher quantity than 5 percent for Timmy who makes minimum wage, but when that 5 percent is taken away, Tommy can still live lavishly, and Timmy has more difficulty to even make ends meet.” A pretty fucking convincing argument, but stubborn 12-year-old me with the Republican mother and conservative upbringing honestly could not see the point my peer was trying to make. The conversation, however, remains with me to this day.

Eventually, I learned so much more. I learned about the institutional systems that reinforce poverty. I learned about racism, classism, and unequal education systems depending on these very real societal hierarchies. I learned about corporate interest, fundamental principles of capitalism, war, and greed. It may have taken a few years but I began to understand injustice. And in doing so, I began to understand why all my previous convictions were so incredibly basic, so superficial in every way. But I’ll be damned if I do not acknowledge that I began to understand mainly from the patience, from the love, and from the grace of others.

Patience. Love. Grace. These were not the words I typically thought about when it came to political conversations, particularly with those of differing viewpoints. Often, my mind was clouded with other words: privilege, ignorance, offensiveness. My attitude towards certain people’s entire character was, quite simply, hopeless. The communities I found myself in perpetuated this lack of faith in others. We were always on the defensive, always angry, always believing that we were the enlightened folk, with nothing left to learn but everything to preach. I cannot stress enough that I acknowledge and comprehend the validity in these attitudes of outrage. Sensitivity is not a problem. Anger is not a problem. Space is not a problem. But when sensitivity becomes dismissive, when anger becomes judgment, and when space becomes exile, I do, honestly, see a problem. I know this may be controversial. Of course this should be controversial! I cannot whisper about this any longer. I am worried that political consciousness is more an exclusive beacon of achievement rather than a perspective that is not only just open to, but also passionately believes in deeply interacting with others. I am worried that political consciousness is a personal victory. I am worried that political consciousness has no desire to be shared, to be seen as forever incomplete, to be handled with patience, love, and grace, in a symbiotic relationship of education and transformation. It was not until this summer that I began to really wonder, why do I speak out? For what purpose do I use my words? And, most of all, what is the cost of speaking out against others, rather than speaking with others?

I am not quite sure how to do this. But I think it begins with ending the mentality that people are right or wrong. I do believe there are opinions that are toxic and unjust. But so long as we categorize entire humans, hell, entire populations, to being wrong as entities, then we end up committing an act that is toxic and unjust. I want to be clear that I am speaking for myself, but I also want to question the authenticity of people who shut down others in vehement, dismissive ways. When we refuse to engage with those we deem wrong, do we not stifle our own cause, and our own perspective? When we say someone, especially someone who is seeking for an answer, is wrong, I cannot help but believe that we do not teach him anything. If Joe, who does not yet understand addition as a concept, tells you 2+2 = 3 and you say he is wrong, how can you just assume that he will realize the answer is 4?

I think, when it comes to social justice, many activist-oriented, liberal arts students assume everyone knows “addition,” but we forget that we too had to learn these things and have our own minds changed! We say we are spreading awareness by sharing Facebook articles but I find that these are often just validating for ourselves, limited to our like-minded community, and often linked to a moral affirmation. I, too, am trying to handle this topic with patience, love, and grace. I very much hope that I am not coming off as harsh or demeaning, because I understand that there is something radical and powerful about sharing perspectives that speak to us, that are wise, that build us up, that challenge us in subtle ways, and that we think deserve to be spread. But I am also starting to realize this may be more for ourselves than we really want to acknowledge. And that’s okay, but can we just acknowledge it? Can we even go further, and admit that these kinds of actions, particularly when they violently criticize other points of view or use certain rhetoric, sometimes result in alienation? Can we criticize our own hierarchal spaces, ones founded on a specific, limited idea of moral righteousness rather than radical patience?

Radical patience is more than just listening. It is listening with the genuine willingness to allow another perspective the ability to influence our own. It is important to have convictions, but I am suspect of unwavering convictions. How can we address issues of humanity in creative, transformative ways if we refuse to be influenced by others? How can we achieve unification if we reject entire people on the basis of their thoughts? How can we claim a desire for systematic change if we refuse to even interact with the majority of the people within the systems?

It is hard to feel passionate and enraged about injustice and not fall into preaching when we talk about it. It is hard to understand where someone is coming from when they do not feel the same ways as us. It is hard to think outside ourselves and our reality when that is all we know. It is hard to realize that we know nothing at all. It is hard to admit that we can learn from ideas that do not correspond with our liberal arts college-educated understanding of the world, or with our rhetoric. It is hard to remember that that is the point. Unification is the point. It is hard to not corner myself in the comfort of belonging to a clique of supportive, like-minded folk. But when I reflect on how I have been afforded so many instances of patient, loving, graceful education in my life, I know that these are hardships worth undergoing.

Perspective is a privilege and it is one we ought to see as forever blooming, and worth discussing. We are being judgmental ourselves when we fail to take the time to understand a perspective vastly different than ours often because we assume we know the logic, and we are not open to transforming our own limited perspectives—for no one has total omniscience. Self-love is important. Anger is important. Space can be important. My comfort, however, is not important. The comfort of avoiding confronting issues with those who differ from me, will never yield understanding. The comfort of creating spaces that do not challenge my perspective—especially as a privileged, liberal arts educated, American woman—will never allow me to grow or understand the boundless differing realities of those who live in the world I so passionately wish to see changed. It may not be fair to ask everyone to practice this radical patience, especially at the beginning of their own education, and it is not fair that this task of listening often falls on the oppressed, with little reciprocal understanding from the other side. That is an injustice. But it is also not fair that privileged voices—elitist college voices, voices that have had many opportunities help develop their perspective—do not do their part in sharing, listening, and learning together.

Authentic welcoming, which can still be critical and passionate and full of disagreement, is hard. But when we lean into our discomfort, when we allow ourselves the beautiful possibility of being influenced by one another’s vastly different truths, I believe we will find ourselves in positive, creative spaces founded on understanding and trust. Perhaps I speak for myself when I say I need to break from closed-off communities, I need to break from moral authority, I need to break from my assumptive, exclusive perspective. Instead, I need to start practicing what has been given to me so openly: patience, love, and grace. Hopefully, if you disagree, we can at least find the time to talk about it.