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Bridging the partisan divide

January 27, 2019

My daughter was — until last summer — a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. She told me an interesting story about the reactions of many of her classmates to an assigned reading: “The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.”

The book engendered a fair amount of righteous indignation. The most serious flaw in the book, according to many in the class, was that it was a simple recapitulation of “white privilege” — it was, in other words, operating under the solecism that people with major disagreements should try to understand their opponents’ positions.

There is nothing surprising about such a reaction to a centrist work. I was a graduate student once, and I remember vividly the intoxicating sense of being a part of a community of bright, well-read people who nurture a sense of living in a rarefied environment, surrounded by like-minded scholars, in a position to dissect the most abstruse texts, identifying pathologies of ideology that our community, our quality of thought and commitment to meaningful social change made us uniquely qualified to analyze.

Of course, I never put it quite that way when seized by a particularly potent spasm of self-congratulation. I would never have said I was right, or that a book was wrong, because I had been subtly influenced by beliefs about my elite status as an intellectual, by the milieu of a highly regarded (and ranked) program and school of which I was a part, or by an ironically reflexive progressive mindset that most students shared.

No, when I read assignments, I assumed I was reading them critically, that I was better situated than almost anyone else to spot ideological flaws.

Had my career steered me to a tenured position at a comparable school, I might never have questioned the quality and autonomy of my critical thought. But I ended up, instead, in West Texas. The places I have taught “out West” are, in many ways, the antitheses of urban Texas. Many people here passionately, sincerely believe their kids should not even discuss issues like gay marriage. I disagree.

But I have learned this much: I need to understand the people whose passions are not mine if I want to be heard at all. I actually feel I have a more authentically autonomous way of approaching ideas than I did when I was surrounded by like-minded, progressive intellectuals. They would disagree, I suspect; they would say the culture, the people, the ideas surrounding me now have made me as flawed as a book that endorses bridging a partisan divide (rather than winning a culture war).

I think, though, that I have grown. I have, in fact, found people whom I truly like, though we passionately disagree about basic issues. I have found that under the “divide” is a vast, profound unity: We love our country, because our country allows us freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

“Privilege” means someone gets something without working for it. If all of us will speak with compassionate understanding, rather than label from a place of glib privilege, we might actually hear and be heard. If that’s not our goal, we are hypocrites.

The “divides” of our culture were on glorious display recently. Just days ago, competing videos and narratives made teens in “MAGA” hats patriots or punks, and instantly reduced a complex event into a talking point — a photo op.

Compassion begins when one person imagines what it feels like to be the human being under the mask of “enemy.” We can think before we judge, and then judge with compassion.

David Newman is an English instructor at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi.

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