POS 440: Discovering the ‘elephant’ in the room

By Ryan Buffa | gargoyle@flagler.edu

It was the first day of class and I wanted to jump over my desk and scream at my classmates. I thought they were dead wrong. How could they possibly think this way?

In the Election 2012 class we have students who could easily be defined as the artist, the conservative Christian with a cross draped around her neck, a Student Government Association member, a mid-30s veteran with a cross tattooed across his forearm, and me, the so-called “strict liberal.”

It was a quiz by the PEW Research Center that defined our political views in front of the class. This quiz was supposed to give us a better idea of who we are and who was sitting next to us.

Each question varied between economic views, government influence and social issues. The first few students came out to be “moderates” or “independents.” They were in the safe zone. No reason for me to get offended.

Next to take the quiz was the girl with the cross necklace settled delicately on her chest. She seemed nice. We even shared a laugh before the class started. When asked to choose between “Homosexuals should NOT be accepted in society” or “Homosexuals SHOULD be accepted in society,” she took a deep breath in hesitation and said she believes gays should not be accepted.

Smoke started coming out of my ears. I am firm believer in equal rights and have many close friends in the LBGT community. I was shocked. How could she really think that? At Flagler College, a liberal arts school with a student body that seems to be overwhelmingly accepting?

After the class took the quiz, some of us who had smiled at each other before class were now avoiding eye contact. We were now “enemies.” I didn’t act friendly with my  “staunch conservative” opponent at the end of that day or at the beginning of the next class.

But something happened in that next class. As we discussed a whirlwind of topics from Chick-fil-a to Syria and Lybia, that animosity — that polarization — was gone. Or at least, the differences and emotions in our views became a simmer rather than a boil. Is it because comments began with a story of family, of wives, or friends and hometowns? Was it because we talked about how issues affected us personally?

We dove right in, discussing a whirlwind of topics from Chick-fil-a to Syria and Lybia. Everyone had something to say. However, what should have been a setting in the jungle, or more so a circus with donkeys and elephants neighing and trumpeting over one another, was actually a group of young students having a civil but passionate conversation.

I began to realize that the comments usually began with a story of “my family,” “my wife,” “my friends,” “my hometown.” When it came to voicing new ideas it went along the lines of what they have read, watched or experience. Although I knew nothing about these people besides what they have shared in class, I began to see things from their point of view,  or at least, I tried on their glasses for a second. And even though things looked foggy and even made me a little dizzy, I began to understand. I was listening to them, and when I spoke they listened to me. Despite what we have all seen from politicians and in the media, no one felt the need to shout their opinion for their point of view to be heard. And even though a poll showed several students have polar opposite opinions from my own, there were times I found myself nodding in understanding at their words and sometimes, gasp, agreeing with them.

I never thought that day would come. It seemed impossible to me that I could ever agree with a person on any subject at all if they disagree with one of my core beliefs of mine, not to mention what makes complete sense to me. I realized something now: No matter how strongly I believe in something, there will always be someone out there who believes the opposite just as strongly. And that is something I can manage to wrap around my own mind now. As much as I wish everyone believed that homosexuals should have the same equal rights as all Americans, I see that this particular young woman in my class has opposite views on this issue because she comes from a different background, family, religion, etc than I do. I now think that on that day, she was brave for sharing what she called an “unpopular” belief, because she was honest in a room full of strangers. How else will Americans meet in the middle if we do not step forward and share and explain these ideas?

It did not make sense to me until recently, because I cleared my mind of judgments and took a look at the bigger picture. I automatically judged my classmates because they didn’t agree with me. But when I was forced to listen to their opinions about other issues I came to understand them and why they have those beliefs, which leads me to hear their opinions on other issues. We may not agree, but we met in the middle, cast our judgments to the side and saw where we come from.We can still choose sides, parties, platforms, etc. to support or stand by, but the great thing in this particular classroom, and on a much larger scale in our country,  is that we have the freedom to have these conversations. We can reach until we find common ground and we can respect each other whether we find it or not.

I now can find myself smiling at my “staunch conservative” classmates at the politics of it all, because we no longer just see red and blue but some color near the middle.


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