Hate: The New Normal
It feels like 2020 has imprinted itself upon us with a branding iron. All are struggling in some way, probably many ways — from finding a job, to schooling children, to sickness and even death. In the midst of a global pandemic and social unrest, we are approaching what feels like the most chaotic election of my lifetime. Political polarization has reached a dark place, misinformation is running rampant, and — to say it directly — hate has become the new normal.
I’ve thought about what I could do, as a citizen, in my own small way, to push us back in the right direction. Maybe it’s ludicrous for me to think I can do much of anything, but it’s never ludicrous to try to do the right thing, regardless of the difference it might make. What is clear to me now is that I cannot effect positive change solely through reasoning or trying to prove one side more “right” than the other. No, polarization is not solved by politics, but by something greater than politics.
Each of us grows up in a unique way, with a unique perspective, and over time our perspectives can evolve. But if you’re like me, you don’t often hear someone admit that their perspective has evolved. Our nature is to believe that our political stances have been and always will be the right ones, and that’s a hard thing to cut through.
But I believe in the power of stories, in being vulnerable and admitting to shortcomings, because that allows us to see the person behind the idea. So I would like to share my story with you, my story about how my views have changed over time, and my discovery that — despite how strongly I feel about my views — the most important thing I can do as a person has nothing to do with politics at all.
Growing up in Utah, I became accustomed to a constant diet of conservative media. Conservatism seemed right to me. The government should be small, taxes should be low, and we should protect our freedoms. But to be honest, it felt more than right — it felt “righteous.” The pundits all told me that liberals wanted to destroy our country, and who would want that? Not me. I was grateful to have gained the knowledge to not be fooled by the liberals. What I didn’t realize was how much my perspective was lacking, because I had never even considered another perspective.
After college, I decided on law school and attended Brigham Young University. There, I got my first real taste of a liberal perspective. Despite the conservative nature of the university, the law school was one place on campus where ideas were challenged. But any time I heard what I would call “liberal” ideas, which wasn’t too often, I immediately — instinctively — discounted them. I’d heard the pundits talk about them before, I’d seen the warning posts on social media, and I wasn’t going to be deceived. I knew better.
My journey took an interesting twist when I transferred to Stanford to finish my law degree. In terms of politics, Brigham Young University and Stanford could hardly have been more opposite. One was incredibly conservative, and the other overwhelmingly liberal. But I came in prepared. I’d even been warned to not “let them turn you into a liberal.”
I came in firm and unchangeable. I knew where I stood, and I would not be moved. But my classes had an interesting impact on me. I shared rooms with remarkable people from all over the world, from all different kinds of backgrounds and experiences, and their views reflected that. I’d never been exposed to so many views in one place before. It shocked me, and even scared me at first. Here I was, facing what I had been prepared for. But I was ready.
I thought it was strange how various groups would send out emails to the entire school, letting everyone know where they stood on certain issues. Why did they have to be so vocal about it? To me, it seemed way over the top, just a sign of liberalism and activism, like I’d been warned about. Why couldn’t they just let me be?
In class, I heard what I felt were radical ideas, at least that’s how the conservative pundits had framed them. And I noticed something about the culture there, something very different from the culture at Brigham Young University. At Brigham Young University, students speaking to a class spoke as if all students in the class were conservative and agreed with them. But at Stanford, students speaking to a class spoke as if all students in the class were liberal and agreed with them. It felt like my world had turned upside down. And it was uncomfortable. Their words affected me, because I was in the minority, and I felt like they were immediately discounting my ideas by acting as if no one in the classroom disagreed with their ideas. Then I wondered if that was how liberals at Brigham Young University felt. Then I wondered if that was how minorities in society felt.
All those emails sent out by student groups started to feel different to me. They weren’t an assault on my inbox — they were healthy communications. With so many different people in one place, it was useful, and even necessary, to let other groups know where they stood, so that we could all be respectful of one another, learn each other’s boundaries, and work together effectively.
As I developed relationships with my peers and subsequently heard them express “radical” ideas in class, I became very confused. I wondered how such outstanding people could have been fooled. But as those class discussions deepened, the pieces began to come together, and I began to see the world from their perspective, and least in a meaningful way. I discovered that their underlying motivations were not foolish or evil, but good and even praiseworthy. What they wanted was a better world for all of us, even if that world was different from the one I had imagined.
What surprised me most was that, when we examined issues together, we often realized that we weren’t that far apart, despite what the news pundits would have us think. I remember speaking with one of my peers in particular, and looking into her eyes when she explained her position to me. I felt how genuine she was. And in the end, at the root of the issue, we actually agreed on what should be done, even though we had initially thought we were far apart. Our discussion, breaking through the surface and meeting in the “messy middle,” allowed us to come together.
These experiences caused me to reflect on my own views. Were liberals actually evil? Did they really want to destroy our country? It sure didn’t seem like it. In fact, I would have been proud to have my children grow up to be like many of my classmates, regardless of political affiliation. They were genuinely good people who wanted the best for society.
I began to wonder if I had closed myself off too much from the world, and if that had actually done more harm than good. And I found value in respectful discussions about differences in perspective. It helped me see the world in new ways and see the goodness in those around me, rather than subconsciously discounting them based on preconceived notions.
From that point on, I’ve made an effort to investigate issues from both sides, and be okay with moving on from previously held views in light of new information in an ever-changing world. As I spent more time listening to others and their perspectives, I grew personally, and found more richness and meaning in life, regardless of whether I agreed with that individual ideologically.
After these experiences, when I would listen to those same conservative pundits, I recognized the hatred that had been largely invisible to me before. I had thought they were standing up for me, for freedom, but now I thought they were either ignorant of the experiences of others or purposefully attempting to increase political polarization for their own gain. Admitting this to myself was a hard thing to do because of how I had previously viewed those pundits, but after I did, I wanted to share this discovery with family and friends back in Utah. However, that proved far more challenging than I had anticipated, and in some ways, I let it get the best of me.
I shy away from labels. But for context, I would not call myself an extremely liberal person. I probably wouldn’t even call myself a liberal person. I am quite moderate, with some conservative leanings, and prefer to judge candidates based upon the person and the platform, rather than the political party. But when I communicated with friends and family members back home any ideas that were anything less than strongly conservative, I was met with fierce resistance, which surprised me. In their eyes, I had not gone to Stanford and learned or gained perspective — I had gone to Stanford and been brainwashed, the very thing they had feared. That hurt and frustrated me. I knew I had an experience most are not fortunate enough to have, an academic experience with a diverse student body, but I did not know how to properly communicate that to my friends and family members. I didn’t know how to help them experience that same broadening of perspective. So I became angry, undercutting many of those conversations.
I was offended that they would immediately discount my experience, even though that’s exactly what I had done to so many of my peers. I became angry and tried to force what I felt was personal growth upon them, but as you might imagine, it didn’t work. Sometimes I would allow myself to poke them with a stick here and there, to upset them, because they had upset me, to prove to them, at least in a small way, how misguided they were, how much they were missing the bigger picture. And that was wrong of me.
I spent time wondering what to do, how I could better approach things. I thought about what changed my perspective. It wasn’t conversations where someone reasoned me away from ignorance; it was the people themselves, their kindness, understanding, and goodness. Those traits opened me up to listening to their ideas, because I saw that they were good people. It wasn’t what they said, but their example that helped me realize that I was wrong to judge them like I had. I was wrong to assign them evil motives.
I also spent time thinking about my religion. I am a practicing Christian who believes that next to loving God, the greatest commandment is to love one another, on which all other commandments hang. Christ even taught us to love our enemies. Was I following that? Did I really believe that? Or was I sacrificing that belief to get my points across? I knew politics mattered — a lot. Policies impact the lives of millions in real ways. But I had to ask myself if I really believed that loving one another was more important than politics. Because if I did, then there was absolutely no place for my degrading of others for their political positions. It was possible to be critical without being hateful. And when I chose to be hateful, I was becoming part of the reason why others sometimes look down on Christianity and say Christians do not practice their religion. Is that what I wanted?
I realized I had become part of the new normal: hate. I had allowed strong, sincere feelings of empathy and support for a cause to warp into baseness, and in doing so I damaged the very cause I supported. I degraded my own message and gave those holding opposing views another reason to hate. And we love to hate. It’s exciting. It gets clicks. We love watching a fight from the sidelines — the bloodier, the better.
But what piece of ourselves do we give up for that fight? How worthy are our principles if they are held above how we treat others? How right am I if I have to demean another to prove my point?
It was hard for me to admit this to myself, because it meant that I needed to set down the stick I had used to poke others with, and bury it. At first, I thought that meant that I wouldn’t be able to adequately express the importance of certain issues. In some ways, that’s true. In some ways, that’s part of the price paid for loving one another. You don’t always get to have the last word. You don’t always get your entire point across. You don’t always get to poke the other person in the eye with your ideas. But what you get is much better than that: greater inner peace, closer relationships, and a better society.
I still stumble at times, but I’m committed to living what I say I believe. Since making that commitment, a lot of anger and hatred has left me. I try to diffuse situations rather than escalate them. I dedicate a portion of my time to reviewing ideas and media sources I don’t tend to agree with. I deliberately put in the effort to increase my own awareness of those around me. And, remarkably, I’ve begun to see the gaps that love can bridge, if I will let it.