I grew up in north Georgia. Though I spent most of my early years back and forth between the suburbs of Marietta and Woodstock, I claim the rural city of Jasper in Pickens county as where I was raised. While I only spent 3.5 years of high school there, it’s where I made most of my early friends, where I learned to drive, and where I really began to learn who I was. I absolutely loved growing up there. While there were still cliques as there are in most schools, they seemed to be a little less exclusive than they were in the suburbs. Perhaps this was because of the odd intersection of backgrounds and social classes. There were many students who came from working class, blue collar families, as would be expected from a primarily rural county. While some of these families were quite well off, having large farming establishments, most were on the lower end of the middle class or below. Along with these students, there were upper-middle class former suburbanites like myself whose families were expanding the suburbs north (despite being 85 miles from downtown Atlanta, Jasper is still considered part of the Atlanta metro area). Finally, there were a number of students who lived in the resort-style mountain neighborhoods, among them children of current or former physicians, attorneys, and executives.
While there was a decent amount of class diversity in Jasper, it was still a pretty insular place. Depending on where you lived, it could be a 20 to 30 minute drive to get to a grocery store, upwards of 45 minutes to an hour to get to a movie theater. However, the majority of the homogeneity was found in the realm of race, culture, and ideas. 2015 census data shows that despite it being over a decade since I lived there, the population is still 95.6% white. I think there were about 5 minority students in my class of 100+. I have one black friend who was a heck of a pianist, but that was about it. I’m still convinced the most diverse day in the history of Jasper was when we played MLK in the high school football playoffs. As to culture and ideas, from my perspective, much of it revolved around school and churches. If you wanted live music, you could either drive towards Atlanta or you could attend church or go to a choir concert. If you wanted to make friends outside of school, you could play sports, join the FFA, or join a youth group. I know a couple of athiest and/or agnostic students in Jasper, but not many. I knew a couple of openly gay students in Jasper, but not many. In addition to the racial and cultural homogeneity, in 2016, the county voted over 83% for Donald Trump. While in school, I knew there were a few families that leaned democratic (a couple in particular stand out :), but I knew little of what that meant practically. Attending the University of Georgia didn’t really help much with my exposure to ideas. While it tries its best to promote diversity of race and thought, and it’s there if you search for it, I didn’t organically happen across it all that much.
So, with this background, a few years ago I was trying to decide between two job offers. One option was at my dream employer…an extremely conservative, Christian organization on the west coast. Being very Christian and very conservative, this was really appealing. The other was at the most diverse and progressive college in the state literally at the heart of Atlanta. This was honestly kinda terrifying. The drive for the interview was literally the first time I’d ever driven downtown by myself. During the decision process, I spent a significant amount of time really evaluating the question of what type of people I would likely spend most of my time around. Every personality test I’ve ever taken has me split introvert/extrovert, and I really enjoy making real connections with people. I knew I’d want to try to make friends wherever I ended up, and I wanted friends who would challenge me. Maintaining my traditional beliefs had been easy up until this point. I wanted something different. So, I ended up going with the job at Georgia State University. Yes, it was mostly because the job itself was better, but having the opportunity to experience diversity of thought on a day-to-day basis was important to me.
I gained so much from my time at Georgia State. From having chats about their boyfriend(s) with openly gay co-workers to discussions about marijuana legalization with regular users to chats about faith with muslims and atheists and discussions about what it’s like to be in a new country as a refugee, I grew significantly in my perspectives on issues as well as just an understanding of people from working there. Whether it was a conversation over coffee in the break room or a quickly lunch grabbed before a meeting or a multi-hour conversation with another programmer while we wrangle code in my shared office, I think these interactions were some of the best I’ve ever had.
While there, I’d always had this half-joking phrase floating around in the back of my mind that “lunch with liberals” was fun and I should do it more. Well, it’s halfway through January, so it’s probably too late to make a resolution, but I’ve decided this year that I’m going to try to make this a regular thing. I’m going to try at least monthly to have lunch with a liberal. I think this is really important, and here’s why. You see, liberals (most often democrats) aren’t having a great time at the moment. Yes, I know it’s fun to laugh at people melting down over Trump. I know it can feel good to finally get to stick it to the immigrants that are taking our jobs. I know it can make you feel safe to refuse refugees who could be terrorists. However, in each of these situations, there is a person that is actually affected by it. Take just a second and think back to when Barack Hussein Obama was entering his first days of the presidency. Back when he was, in many conservative minds, just a front for Bill Ayers and had muslim ties. Back when you thought communism was coming and guns would be confiscated and the economy would tank and churches would be persecuted and we would have a police state. There was real fear for yourself and your families. Well, here we are again, except the roles are reversed. Conservatives screamed for compromise and truly hoped that their voices would be heard and that they wouldn’t lose so much they had fought for.
The phrase compassionate conservatism used to be a thing. Sadly, it seems it’s been replaced in large part by angry conservatism…bitter conservatism…smug conservatism. Yes, you can blame some of this on the media and some of it on Obama and some of it on democrats as a whole. However, in my opinion, the majority of it has to be placed on the fact that we’ve forgotten that there’s a person behind every comment. There are people under every drone strike. There are thousands of individuals behind every policy change. There are faces and ideas and hopes and dreams who are truly feeling confusion and fear and sadness behind abortion, refugees, immigration, and gay marriage. I’ve watched some of the most friendly people I know…some of the most outgoing…some of the most encouraging and loving and optimistic for some reason fight bitterly to the pain over Donald Trump.
So, I’m issuing a challenge. Part of me wants to make it ice bucket challenge-ish, but calling out people in this way just seems rude. However, for any conservative who wants to take it up, I challenge you to have lunch with a liberal.
First you have to find said liberal, but that’s not all that hard. Just ask the one that you’re thinking about blocking on Facebook, or the one that has conversations with your cubicle neighbor that you always want to jump in on with some sarcastic quip about Obama, or the one that you want to laugh at because they seem to actually be seriously afraid. If you’re an introvert or otherwise avoid/hate people, you can ask them over Facebook. Once you find them and invite them to lunch, here are the ground rules:
1. The first rule of lunch with a liberal is that we don’t talk about conservative stances on policies. You’re not allowed to argue, or even talk very much. You’re there to listen.
2. The second is that we don’t talk about conservative stances on policies. I’m serious about this. You’re going to ask questions. Ask about what they think about Trump. Ask about what they think about Republicans. Ask if they’re afraid of anything in particular. Listen to the fears, listen to the concerns, listen to the challenges they’re facing. Bite your tongue when you want to interject or call them a name or think that they’re naive. The point of this exercise is that you’re here to learn. You’re here to put a face behind the candidates and policies you’re supporting. As a great nonprofit journalist once told me…when you’re trying to demonstrate the pain of thousands who lost their homes due to a natural disaster, you don’t tell a thousand stories…you tell one, or two, or three…and then challenge the listener to multiply that a thousand times. If we’re going to be compassionate conservatives, we have to actually have compassion, and the only way to have compassion is to know the real effects of the things you believe and are supporting. If they ask you for your views, you can share them, but do so in a way that is respectful and considerate. If you do so, ask them afterward if they have any feedback on how you view things and things that you’re missing.
3. The third is that you’re going to be chivalrous. You asked them on this weird-pseudo-date, so you are going to consider offering to pay for it, because that’s what a compassionate, traditional conservative would do. You don’t have to, but it’s a nice gesture.
4. The fourth is hard, but it needs to be done. You’re going to actually sit down and think about the things you heard. You’re going to find something they are concerned about that struck you as important. Perhaps it’s that they’re truly afraid of climate change. Perhaps it’s that they have friends who are immigrants. Perhaps it’s that they are hurt and scared and angry by police brutality towards minorities.
5. And…now you’re going to do what might be one of the harder things you’ve ever done. You’re going to make a pledge to take 1 practical step towards supporting something they believe. You don’t have to change your beliefs or compromise. However, you have to do something, because that’s what a compassionate person would do. If you hear someone is hurting, you try to help them. If they’re worried about climate change or environmental issues, it could be a pledge to go out of your way to recycle. It could be that you’re going to choose not to eat beef once a month since cow farming contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. If they’re concerned about police brutality, you could pledge to choose to not make instant judgements that the individual was at fault. You don’t have to abandon supporting the police, but you are choosing to abandon making assumptions. If they’re concerned about abortion being made illegal, perhaps you pledge to make a donation to support foster care or adoption. Perhaps you pledge to offer to babysit for a single mother. You don’t have to donate to planned parenthood or do something else that outright opposes your beliefs, but you have to do something that shows them that you have heard their concerns are are willing to make a conscious effort to make a small compromise. Yes, I know you’re ready to jump in and say that it actually won’t change anything because these issues are so big, but I’m not worried about you solving these issues. I’m more concerned about you being willing to be thoughtful, compromise, and dare I say it…compassionate to the needs of someone different from you. If you can’t think of anything, talk with someone else about what ways you can address the issue. If you’re up to it, go back to the person you had lunch with and ask them what you can do.
6. Ok, here’s the last thing. You’re going to both inform the individual you took to lunch of what you’re doing as well as consider publically writing about it. No, this isn’t gloating or virtue signalling. This is you showing that you are making an effort to understand the struggles and hurt and fear that people are currently feeling and are doing what you can to help address that in a way that you can. Approach it with a simple “Hey, I was thinking about what we talked about the other day, and though I’m still not completely sold on the idea, I think you made a good case. I’m going to start doing X because I think it’s important. I know it’s small, but I want to contribute what I can.”
So, that’s that. Happy lunching! I’ll be posting soon about my experiences, and I hope to see others doing the same.