Dirty hippies and right-wing nuts: Can they be together at last?

A girl I knew in high school once said, “I could never be good friends with a liberal. They’re so out of touch with reality they’re just stupid.” I was immediately taken aback. How, I asked, could she completely discount a great portion of the world’s populace from ever befriending her? “I guess our values are too different,” she said. “We just don’t want the same things.”

Is this assumption, so common among Americans, really true? Do the people of the world really have such opposing values? I would argue no. Rather, the things we value, at the most basic level, are strikingly similar. The divergences come in our beliefs, primarily in what we believe to be the best ways to realize those things we value.

Take, for example, two people who are seen as volatile nemeses. One is the classic revolutionary, history-is-a-class-struggle, academic Marxist. The other is the taxes-are-oppression, mind-is-supreme, leave-me-alone, atomic individualist. Both will claim the other is trying to enslave humanity and is therefore an enemy to be conquered. Definitely a pair you won’t see hand in hand prancing through the park.

But why not? It is because each is so absolute and passionate about his or her own views that neither recognizes they share a common goal: achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

I pride myself on being politically inclusive. My friends span the political spectrum, from right-wing religious extremists to socialists to anarchists. I have noticed three things about them. First, all of them genuinely and passionately seek a world where people live long, peaceful, happy lives. Second, they are all wonderful people I am fortunate to know. Third, most of them have gross misperceptions of other people’s values.

We are taught to think of politics as war, and it certainly plays out that way. Party leaders, pundits and activists spoon-feed propaganda to a fervent ideological infantry, indoctrinating them to despise the depravity and immorality of their respective enemies. Republicans are all bigots who hate the poor; every Democrat lies and ignores reason. Excuse me?

As a society, we strive for understanding between those with different cultures and religious beliefs. These are good and noble goals, so why stop there? Should we not advocate a similar tolerance of political differences? A good response is, “No, politics is different. Religion and culture can be practiced without affecting me. Your political beliefs, however, have a tangible effect on my life.” Certainly politics is unique in this way, but it is still no reason to turn it into a zero-sum game. Why? Because there are practical reasons to being politically inclusive, besides creating a more positive and civil political arena.

Simply put, those who are politically inclusive are better able to advance their own beliefs. Let’s say person “A” attacks you based on a surface understanding of your politics. Person “B,” in contrast, has a deep and profound understanding of your motivations and beliefs and is eager to learn from you. Whose position are you more likely to listen to? Who is more likely to gain your respect and possibly change your mind? And, as an added bonus, the better you understand others’ views, the better you will be able to articulate your own.

College campuses are political hotbeds, brimming with bright-eyed young idealists, some of whom will become our political leaders. What better place to fashion a culture of mutual political understanding from the ground up? What better time to move past all our prejudices and recognize our common human values? 

Josh LaBau is a history and English senior. He welcomes comments at [email protected]