A few days ago, I was having a conversation with a classmate of mine. We had never spoken before, so our conversation followed the typical script of two people just getting to know each other. We talked about where we were originally from and how we ended up at our school, what we thought of our class and what we hoped to do after graduation. They were mild topics, free of controversy or offensiveness.
At one point, I asked what her major was. She told me she had been studying pre-law, but that she was thinking about switching. I followed up by asking why that was, and if she was thinking about becoming a lawyer. Her initial response was a look that fell somewhere between surprise and nausea, as if I had just said something remarkably objectionable. After a moment of pause, she said something more or less along these lines:
The whole legal system is broken. I couldn’t stand to be a part of it anymore. I can’t see how anyone could support law enforcement or courts in this country. It just does more to hurt people than help people. I’ve been a true liberal since I was in the fifth grade, and to become a lawyer would be like having a job that contradicted who I am and what I believe in.
Our conversation naturally died out shortly afterward. At the time I didn’t think much of it, at least beyond the fact that her response seemed a bit more impassioned than expected. But over the next few days her words kept showing up in the back of my mind, playing on repeat for no apparent reason.
I ended up thinking about this conversation a lot. I though about how it was similar to many conversations I’ve had over the past two years, and how political opinions can manage to make their way into mundane discussions in relatively short periods of time. I thought about what she had to say about the legal system and her choice to forgo a career in law because she believed it to be beyond repair. And I thought about how I’ve been on the opposite end of this sort of scenario, injecting my political perspective into a conversation with an innocent bystander who didn’t ask for it.
But the thing that stuck with me the most was how my classmate spoke about her political position as if it was a part of her. She talked about being a true liberal as though it was a core aspect of her identity, a reality that her personhood is dependent on and the predominant lens through which she views the world. As I continued to talk with her I began to feel as though questioning her stance on the U.S. legal system would be akin to questioning her validity as a person. This seemed unusual to me at first. To identify so strongly with politics, whether conservative or liberal, seems like a dangerous game.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I saw a similar relationship to politics in my peers and in myself. As the political climate around the world has taken a turn toward vicious divisiveness, I’ve noticed my main social group bringing increasing amounts of political ideology into how we define ourselves. We set ourselves apart from others not by what we’re interested in or the places we’re from, but rather by where we fall on the political spectrum. And the more divided the political sphere becomes, the more we feel the need to solidify where we stand on candidates and hot-button issues, assuming it to be some sort of moral high ground or representation of our good character.
Since the people I tend to spend my time with share most of my viewpoints, we’ve had little reason to question the role politics play in how we view ourselves, let alone the way we view others. But as I’ve had more conversations with people on the opposite end of the political spectrum, I’ve noticed the divide this has the potential to create. By feeling personally connected to my political position, I find that my ability to have a meaningful conversation with someone who I know holds a different opinion or voted for the other candidate is significantly diminished.
Instead of viewing them as an equal who happens to have a different political perspective, I find myself perceiving them as an altogether different type of person. It becomes hard for me to imagine any commonality the two of us may have. And, ultimately, I fall into the trap of feeling the need to either convince them of their moral inferiority or simply avoid them altogether.
As a result of this, I’ve noticed my friends and I becoming further entrenched in our own little bubble, unwilling to consider the value of differing perspectives or the people who have them. We’ve become complacent in challenging our opinions and alienated from those who can speak for the other side. But most of all, we’ve begun to place politics over relationships.
I think this melding of politics and personal identity is one of the main obstacles our generation will be forced to navigate. By placing political ideology at the center of our identity, we run the risk of becoming increasingly at odds with one another, impeding our ability to truly understand perspectives different from our own and develop meaningful relationships with the people who hold them.
I’m not suggesting we abandon our ideological preferences or become less politically active. I think this would hurt our situation more than help it. Instead, I hope that by identifying with unifying ideals rather than divisive political issues we will become more politically productive, improving our ability to understand one another and find common ground to build upon.
All of that being said, I could be totally misguided about all this. I look forward to the day when I’m convinced otherwise. But until then, my main hope for our generation is that we will become less divided. I hope we learn to consider different opinions without fear of delegitimizing our own. I hope we embrace the discomfort of conversations that challenge our perspectives. And, above all, I hope our generation becomes increasingly unified as we pursue a better future together.
Thanks for reading,