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One of my values: Doubt

It’s been nearly nine years now that I’ve had the privilege of being an opinion journalist, at least on a part-time basis. I’ve won a couple of awards for my work, and the column I co-write is distributed to papers across the nation. It’s the kind of gig a lot of people dream of and never attain, and I know that I’m lucky as hell to have had this privilege.

During the nine years, two big personal goals that have motivated me:

To prove I belonged: I know I wasn’t the person John Temple had in mind when he hired me, along with Ben Boychuk, for RedBlueAmerica. He told me as much — he was expecting somebody who had done a stint at the New Republic, and I’m guessing an Ivy League degree was probably part of that package. I worked hard to prove that while I was green in opinion journalism and had an unusual background for the job, I was well-read enough, smart enough, and thoughtful enough — curious enough — to express opinions at something deeper than a family-argument-at-Thanksgiving level. I don’t know what John’s opinion on the topic is, but I’ve satisfied myself on that score. Oh, there are always going to be people smarter and better-read than I — I argue with them! Often! — but I can generally hold my own at the Grownups Table.

To keep alive my relationships with conservatives.  Even back in 2007, the country’s increasing polarization was obvious. I was liberal, but had gone to a conservative college, had conservative friends, and though we sometimes contended with each other, it seemed important to maintain those relationships. More broadly, it seemed more important that some of us liberals and conservatives keep trying to talk to each other — rather than at or around or near — because, well, we share a country. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and all that.

I’ve been dubious of the latter project lately. Some of it is election-year exhaustion, exacerbated by the presence of Donald Trump in the race: We’ve been on Full Hyperbole for a year now, and it seems possible things will get worse.

There are a couple of other incidents that have made me want to throw my hands in the air.

In the first, a conservative friend responded to an (admittedly frustrated) post on race with a frustrated post of his own — one that featured, prominently, the words “fuck you.” Directed at me. I’ve got a thick skin, but it didn’t feel like the kind of comment that welcomes further dialogue.

The same day, I heard from a very smart liberal friend who suggested — or maybe I simply perceived in her words — that I am a useful idiot for my conservative friends. In any case, she said, my ability to maintain friendships with people who had such bad attitudes on race was essentially a function of white privilege. “Some of your friends don't seem interested in change; instead, they just want to catch a hole in your liberal logic and can say to their conservative friends, "Oh, I have liberal friends" in a way that shows how magnanimous they are,” she wrote. “I don't think it's a healthy relationship, but that's just me.”

I wasn’t all that sure I disagreed.

All in all, it has not seemed, lately, like there’s much room for pursuing friendship and conversation with people who don’t already share my values to a nearly complete degree.

The problem, for me, is this: One of my values is doubt.

Oh, it might a neurotic tic as well, sure. But it’s also a matter of values: I believe that I, Joel Mathis, may not be 100 percent right about every issue I’ve thought about. I might even be wrong about some things. And if I’m possibly wrong about something, that means my conservative friends might be right about some stuff — or, at least, more right than I am.

One point of the continued dialogue then isn’t just to convince my conservative friends that they’re wrong, but to be open to perspectives and ideas outside of my own. And yes: Finding the right line between “having an open mind” and “having it so open your brain falls out” can be maddening, but I’m not sure that makes the aim less worthy.

The stumbling point, as ever, seems to be race. On this point, I feel that I’m on the side of angels. I feel reasonably confident in asserting that people of color very often encounter systemic and individual obstacles in this country that white people don’t. I feel reasonably confident in asserting that these obstacles aren’t just class-based, but often are race-based.

Not all of my conservative friends agree with this basic proposition. Some believe — or seem to — that America has fulfilled its promise as a land of opportunity, and that anybody who makes racial complaints these days is a “race hustler” trying to exploit the topic for power or some other kind of gain. My liberal friends, to a large degree, think these people are racist — or borderline so.

This is where things get tricky: I err on the side of treating my conservative friends as though they believe what they say. They don't think they're racist — they profess to admire MLK and say they believe in a colorblind ideal — and they don't like being called racist and they roll their eyes when they hear the term "white privilege." I don't agree with them on any of this, but I'm left with two choices:

• Call them "racist" and watch the conversation short-circuit and end.
• Refrain from the name-calling and continue the conversation.

I don't think Option No. 1 does anything but cement hard feelings. And Option 2 isn't much better, because the process rarely results in anything that feels like success — only more conversation. And yes, it’s changed me: I’m still a hardass about race — I think, at least — but I’ve realized that I can’t be blindly self-righteous on the issue. I’ve got my own sin to deal with, and liberals haven’t always approached the matter constructively.

I suggested to my liberal friend that one reason to stay in the conversation is because it’s the only hope of persuading somebody. And that’s true. But on occasion, if one wants to be honest and fair, one must be open — but not too open — to being persuaded.

(Humanity is messy and stupid. Few people conceive of themselves as villains — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t villains. People rationalize. We needn’t buy rationalizations or see people as they see themselves. But neither should we ignore those things.)

That’s not to say that the conversation itself should be valued above all else. I recently took a break from communicating with a conservative friend because I realized that the world she saw and described had no discernible (to me) tether to reality. Combined with that was a realization that, at best, we reinforced each other’s worst tendencies to self-righteousness. (I’m not placing all the blame for this on her, by any stretch.) It was conversation as World War I trench warfare — bodies dropping everywhere, with lines moving on. We stayed in conversation a long time, in part because of her motto (and I’m paraphrasing): “Not agreement, but understanding.” Recently, though, even that goal had come to seem elusive. She is a good person, I truly believe, but I no longer know how to be in dialogue with her. And so, for the moment at least, I’ve stopped trying.

And I haven’t had a day go by where I haven’t reconsidered. It’s that doubt again, asking me if I’ve really made the right decision. It’s a useful question. But for now, the answer is “yes, this is the right decision.” It may not be undoable.

My liberal friend suggests my efforts to maintain my conservative friendships may be costing me more than I gain, and for the moment, anyway, it feels that way. But burying myself in my side’s echo chamber — well, that’s comforting, but it doesn’t seem right.

To mix a dose of intentional humility — god, that sounds self-aggrandizing — with values can feel and look like a betrayal of those values, I guess, like a failure of spine. Relationships and politics, however, are not warfare — or they shouldn’t be, at least. We should never let anybody doubt what our true values are. But to stay in conversation is a value, in and of itself. And so, sometimes, is a little bit of self-doubt.


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