On Asking Why: The Value of Disagreement

This election season, my best friend will vote for Donald Trump. I know this because I asked her on the phone last month and she told me. I am not voting for Donald Trump. In fact, I think he’s terrible. But I also love my best friend, and I know that I can’t change how she (a libertarian) feels about tax law and the role of individual generosity.

I think many Kenyon students would like my first question for her to be something along the lines of “what is wrong with you?” I would’ve asked this as a high school freshman, when we first met and I honestly thought that her family held book burnings because she was both homeschooled and born-again Christian, two marks of the “radicalism” I had already learned to vilify by age 14. But where does this question get us? It gets us into an argument.

Instead, I asked her “why?” And honestly, she gave me an answer that strangely resembled the reasons I’d vote for a candidate; she believes that he will make the country better. But if I hadn’t known her for six years, through long nights and a year of sharing a bunk bed, I probably wouldn’t have asked that. If her grandparents hadn’t unconditionally offered me their home when I moved to Nashville, saying “my casa is your casa,” I might’ve thought that all libertarians wanted to hoard their money to buy new cars instead of using it to benefit people in need, because that’s what I had heard in my community. If I hadn’t lived with her demographic, I wouldn’t know that people who vote differently than I usually do so with good intentions.

When I moved to the South, I knew my perceptions might change. And I wanted them to. I knew that growing up in Vermont made my point of view limited, and I wanted to challenge what I believed in. When I started attending Kenyon after living in Nashville, I knew my perceptions would change again. And I wanted them to. I knew that living in the South had created new gaps in my worldview, ones that a liberal arts education would cause me to question in eye-opening ways.

With this mindset, I tentatively enrolled in Professor Heidt’s Proper Ladies, Women Writers class, because I had grown deeply suspicious of feminism. The most prominent feminist I knew was my mother, and nobody (sorry mom) wants to think that their mom is right about men. Let me be clear: I enrolled in a class not only because of the lure surrounding Professor Heidt as giver of clear, thoughtful advice but also because I knew that I disagreed with the class on principle. That’s right, Kenyon; I didn’t consider myself a feminist. But I also knew that I would only be an undergrad student once, and I wanted to learn something I knew little about, instead of just sit in class smugly confirming my own ideas about the world. I wanted to get angry, because I wanted to know why I was angry.

Shockingly, I fell in love with the rhetoric of Wollstonecraft and started to admire George Eliot. I didn’t know the terminology that most of the other women knew in class, but I did respect them as thinkers and women. I also found out about the kindness of Kenyon women, who don’t (for the most part) shame other women for not knowing as much about feminism as they did. I wasn’t a feminist, but then I (tentatively) was. And now, I definitely am.

But this has to go both ways. To me, feminists used to be a “them,” and other women (I never considered myself “anti-feminist”) were “us.” Just like Trump supporters were “them” and rational humans are “us” to many people. We see this in the news or studies “on” Trump supporters. (I’ll leave the vilification of the working-class white American for another time, but I will mention that much off the media misrepresents or demonizes those who have lost their jobs to deindustrialization, making it seem like it’s their own fault they are poor. This provides a perfect opportunity for someone like Trump.)

However, many Kenyon students make statements about “them” without meeting a single person from that other group. If you only attend classes you already agree with and befriend people that make you nod in a bovine way or shout “YAS” and pound the table, you may feel supported. But chances are you won’t feel challenged as much as if you have an open-minded, empathetic conversation with someone you know you disagree with, or take a class outside of your comfort zone.

If the value of a liberal arts education lies in our ability to become better people, we cannot simply reinforce our own viewpoints inside and outside of the classroom. If we want to develop morally and intellectually, we should welcome opinions that make us angry. We should dive headlong into topics that challenge us morally and intellectually, with full acknowledgement that we may feel lost or not understand their meaning. This goes both for those who come to Kenyon unfamiliar with what seem like “dominant ideas,” like feminism, or those who feel at home (maybe for the first time) with Kenyon’s ideas.

I’m not saying you should go hug the middle path protesters. I’m also not voting for Trump. I’m not excusing racism, which is obviously evil and deeply saddening. I want Kenyon to keep taking a stand against hatred in all forms. I’m not a saint now that I admire historical feminists, either. I know I also have a lot to learn. But I have lived in places that both sets of my friends consider “enemy camps.” And I wish Kenyon students would not ask “what is wrong with them?” when they hear an opinion that conflicts with their own, especially when that opinion comes from a demographic with which we have little contact. “What is wrong with them” is an easy out for holier-than-thou types. When I hear it, I hear “I am better and smarter” and that’s a ridiculously limited viewpoint.

I want Kenyon students to ask that question that we’re all so good at when we want to be: I want us to ask why. Even if you radically disagree with everything someone says, you can learn more by asking “why” than by writing them off as crazy. I deeply appreciate people who have given me patient, thoughtful explanations of their points of view when I have asked them. Those moments have made me learn. Honestly, I hope someone does the same for me. I want you to ask me, a born-again Christian who moved to the south by choice and is best friends with a Trump supporter, why. The answer may not be what you expect.


Image Credit: Lena Mazel