A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I took a trip to the west coast to conduct a long-overdue introduction between me and his family, all of whom gathered at his sister’s house in Spokane, Washington for their bi-annual get-together. By most standards, my first encounter with his family was a success. They were warm. Welcoming. Impeccably American. Yet, while meeting my husband’s parents and siblings went by swimmingly, the same wasn’t true of my first encounter with his brother in law, Tyler.
As we walked into their house on the first day, Tyler greeted me with a radiant smile, an assertive embrace, a t-shirt that read “If you know how many guns you have YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH”, and an NRA (National Rifle Association) cap. Then, while hanging my jacket in the coat closet, I was blinded by a Make America Great Again hat that glared at me from the top shelf. The Brooklyn liberal in me was about to implode.
After lunch, we all congregated in the living room. While most of us were sharing stories about our interests and background, Tyler interjected with random statements about his passion for guns and shooting, and went as far as handing me his favourite, most expensive rifle. Note: until that point I had never held a gun in my life, nor did I have any intention to. But as disturbing as I found Tyler’s fascination with guns to be, I was also stricken by how earnest and kind and even gentle he was. In fact, other than him shoving pistols in my face and flashing me with NRA merch, there was nothing about Tyler to inspire any kind of resentment or conflict.
The next day, as the ice further melted between us, Tyler and I started to talk about our work; he told me about his job at a nearby factory and I discussed my experience as an editor and columnist. Though initially hesitant, I told Tyler about an article I wrote in which I rail against America’s poor healthcare services. Unexpectedly, this had turned into an elaborate, four-hour discussion between him, my husband, and I which covered virtually all pressing political topics one could think of.
As far as his opinions were concerned, Tyler did not disappoint. He objects healthcare and believes it should be up to individuals to fund their own medical expenses, not the government. He believes abortion should be made illegal (based on religious grounds) and that a wall should be erected along the southern border. He dislikes Trump’s ‘style and character’, but supports his policy and denounces any attempt to delegitimize his presidency. He does not believe in climate change…
Yet despite the fact that Tyler’s stances stood in stark contrast to those of my husband and mine, the conversation never ceased to be civil. We weren’t hurling words at one another, but rather absorbed with patience what the other was saying, as difficult as it was at times for everyone involved. Even when my husband and I spoke out against all he believes in—his view on the ‘right to life’, his socio-political credo, his president—Tyler remained not only composed and respectful but engaging and… well, loving. This was certainly not how I envisioned my first in-depth discussion with a hard core Republican.
As I excused myself to the kitchen for a mid-conversation chocolate break, Tyler followed me and with eyes brimming with tears told me that such conversations mean the world to him. “There is no one in my life who thinks differently from me, really,” he said, “and it’s so important for me to be exposed to different views.” He then thanked my husband and I for talking to him without making him feel ‘dumb’ or unworthy of respect. “You guys come from big cities, I come from a small community,” Tyler continued, “We bring our respective mentalities and backgrounds and belief-systems to the table, but ultimately I think we all want the same thing. I really just want the best for people.”
Our conversation with Tyler left a long-lasting impression on me. Primarily, it made me realise that it’s exactly these types of discussions that may begin to shrink the ever-expanding rift between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, small-town folks and urbanites. Having more open conversations may not resolve issues such as climate change or the healthcare crisis, as people on both sides seem to be stubbornly positioned in their trenches; yet it will undoubtedly replace the label of “conservative” or “liberal” with that of a human being.
Luckily, we live in a time when reaching out to people from different backgrounds (be it geographically, culturally, or politically) is oh so simple. At the age of social media and the internet, all it takes is a click for a left-leaning activist from Minneapolis to connect with a conservative Bishop from Texas. The virtual realm provides us with an opportunity to not only engage in conversation with people who hold different worldviews but also thoroughly explore and learn about their background and philosophy.
Yes, the manner in which social media is constructed is inherently limiting, to the extent that it is curated based on one’s consumption habits and affiliation and thus potentially further siloes them in their own bubble. The fast-paced, bite-size format of communication on these websites also invites impulsive, spur of the moment comments, which often inhibit constructive discussions. That being said, it is up to us to determine how we utilise such platforms, and to what degree we fall prey to their shortcomings. Ultimately, all it takes is will power, genuine curiosity, and restraint, to engage in a respectful one-on-one with someone from ‘the other side’ on Facebook or Instagram.
As for Tyler, neither he nor I walked away with our opinions altered that day. Nonetheless, we were both left with an overwhelming sense of compassion and hope.