In all the finger pointing and rancor going on post-election, I keep remembering two big lessons about world views I got years ago. I think they keep coming up for me because I see some assumptions being made in the jibes about those who voted for Trump and my lessons told me those assumptions are probably wrong. In times like these it’s so important to be able to step back and at least try to understand another world view.
The first lesson occurred when I was a sociology graduate student, working on a big study for Northwestern’s Center for Urban Affairs. I’d been assigned a couple of neighborhoods to interview as many people as I could. One of the areas was a working class neighborhoodk with some big open housing issues going on.
Having done some networking, I went down one day and interviewed a group gathered in someone’s home. Afterward, a few of the people took me aside and told me quite nicely that if I wanted people there to feel comfortable talking to me I needed to quit talking so “high brow”.
It came as a shock because I’d been very careful not to go into “PhD speak”, which I’ve always despised. Eventually I realized that even though I grew up in a blue collar area, my family is loaded with college-educated people and all my friends growing up were the children of educated people — if not formally educated, the kind of people who read a lot and are always learning (often better than school, I’ve noted). In many ways we don’t speak the same language as people who aren’t readers and learners. The people I was interviewing were put off by my style of speaking and I could see I didn’t have a clue how to change my language to what they needed. We literally talked past one another.
The second lesson came as a fairly new lawyer, back in the late eighties, when I joined a pro bono legal team who were defending a group of protesters arrested at the South African Consulate. Our case intended to set precedent (and did) for using the necessity defense, in this instance arguing that the conditions under apartheid in South Africa were so atrocious it was necessary to violate the law by protesting (kind of a simplified explanation). A lot of our case involved testimony from people who’d either been there or had some expertise about conditions under apartheid.
During the voir dire (choosing the jury panel) it was very important to both sides to know how much awareness the potential jurors had of the situation in South Africa and whether they already had opinions about it. We questioned something like 60 potential jurors of many ages, races, jobs, etc, asking every one whether they regularly read the newspaper or watched the news and what they knew about South Africa and apartheid.
With two exceptions, the startling answer was no. No one read the newspaper. No one watched the news. They barely knew where South Africa was and they knew nothing about the apartheid situation or the call for an embargo, nothing about Nelson Mandela (he was still in prison and far less famous outside the circles who were informed about the situation). Since my entire family and all the people I knew had newspaper subscriptions and watched the news, listened to NPR and stayed informed, this came as a great shock to me.
But it also stuck with me that I need to always remember the world view my circle shares, which assumes you need to stay informed by paying attention to the news, is not the only world view (and not one I share any more). I keep seeing people accusing those who voted for Trump of being bigots, misogynists, etc. (and I did it in a post too) based on an assumption they heard and saw all the things he said.
While I am sure there were plenty who did know these things and voted for him anyway, the probability is that a significant percentage of those who voted for him do not read newspapers or watch the news and didn’t know most of the outrageous things he’d been saying.
The sweet spot for me at the end of the trial story: when I went to the picket line at the Consulate after the trial was over, several members of the jury were there marching. As soon as they knew and understood what was happening they felt they had to take part in the fight to end apartheid. The fact they’d previously chosen not to stay informed didn’t mean they were stupid or unfeeling, it meant they lived a different lifestyle than mine. And when they knew they showed up to help.
We’re all divine sparks of All That Is. Sometimes you have to be open to seeing that spark and trying to understand a different way of thinking.