Almost every time I have a day off with no pressing work to do (so, roughly, two times a year!), I end up getting into arguments with racist, sexist, climate change denying, and/or gun-loving *square dancers on Facebook. Normally, I would never encounter people with such vastly different views from my own, so I can go about my daily life in a nice little bubble thinking that everyone thinks basically the same way that I do. However, since I started participating in square dance related groups and becoming FB friends with square dance callers, I am made regularly aware of the existence of a huge contingent of Western society that does not think like me.
On the days when I have time to get involved in such discussions, I almost always receive emails and private messages from people who agree with me, asking me why I bother. I bother because I want to understand why people think the way they do. We all think we are individuals who have come up with our views and opinions all on our own, but we have not. A huge web of societal influences — coming from our parents, our friends, our teachers, our communities, and the media we encounter, amongst other sources — pushes us to accept certain “truths” about our world. Some of these truths are so deeply ingrained that we do not ever remember learning them.
We hold these truths to be self evident.
There are all kinds of problems in the world that stem from people hunkering down with their views and refusing to engage with those who disagree with them. If I shut myself down and refuse to engage with those who hold views that differ from mine, how can I get upset when I feel that people are not listening to me, or not “seeing reason” (as defined by me).
Probably the best example of this is the gun debate. I will readily admit that I JUST DON’T GET IT. If you were given the choice of living in a society where there were virtually no guns, and very little gun-related violence, versus living in a society where everyone had guns, and there was more gun-related violence than in most other parts of the world, wouldn’t you chose the one where no one had guns? Well, yes, if you come from a family that never had guns around, you have never touched a gun, and you have never been involved in a situation where you might have wanted to have a gun in your hand. And, yes, if you currently live in a society where your chances of even seeing a gun, let alone be harmed by one, are virtually nil. Not so, however, if your family has always had guns, you have fond memories of hunting with your dad, and your neighbour’s house was broken into at gunpoint last week.
It’s not that the gun-shunners are daisy-eyed optimists and the gun-lovers are Yosemite Sam wannabes. It’s that our upbringing, and our current environment, have conspired to bring us to certain views, and it is very, very hard to see the world in a different way. ESPECIALLY WHEN FEAR IS INVOLVED. I would say that fear underlies the argument on both sides of the gun debate. Those who want to get rid of the guns are afraid of the guns, and those who want more guns are afraid of not having guns around when they feel the need to protect themselves.
The problem with both of these viewpoints is that they are based on a very ego-centric view of the world. One thing our Western upbringing gives us in common is the idea that what we as individuals think is the most important thing — the only thing — we need to consider. We have an unbelievable tendency to ignore the fact that we live in society. I studied Psychology to a very high level at university and I thought that gave me a great deal of insight into the way the world works. However, I took my first university-level class in sociology a couple of years ago and my brain practically exploded. Without considering issues from both the psychological and the sociological perspective, I was only seeing half (or less) of the picture. I came to the rather painful realization that my entire worldview, until that point, was horribly skewed.
That experience was the second time in my life that my understanding of the world was completely changed through a particular experience. The first was when I came to Japan and realized that the world was not filled with other people who thought exactly like I did. In fact, as a suddenly very visible, and very minor minority (white, Canadian female in Japan), I found myself having to constantly defend my views on all subjects. Until that point in my life, I had been surrounded by people who thought like I did on most subjects. At the time (i.e. in the 24 years of living in Canada until that point), I didn’t realize that I was surrounded by people who thought like I did on most subjects. I definitely argued with people in Canada, but I realize that the sphere of all arguments I had had to that point in my life could be contained in the dots on the letter “i” in the word “international”. Being pulled out of the comfortable womb of my native land did a very good job of making me see things like “culture”, “privilege”, and “normal” in an entirely different light.
Okay, I may be veering slightly off-topic here. My point is this.
(1) I argue with people in order to try to understand where they are coming from, because I know that they have had a different experience of the world from me. It was only about three years ago that I finally understood that some people actually LIKE guns. That thought had never occurred to me, and without that knowledge, trying to come up with solutions to the gun problem in the United States is impossible. (And, by the way, some people, due to their own background and upbringing, think there is no gun problem — this is also something I only recently realized.)
(2) I argue with people in order to try to help them learn from my experiences. I also hope to learn from theirs. We can’t possibly experience everything in this world, so we have to make do with second-hand experiences sometimes.
And finally, (3) I argue with people because it is, for whatever reason, something I feel I have to do. I cannot see a post like this…
… or this…
…and not say anything. I just can’t.
* Note: Not all square dancers are racist, sexist, gun-loving climate change deniers. I belong to a square dance club in Japan and those words do not characterize any of the people that I dance with. I only realized the connection between square dancing and these ideologies when I joined the above-mentioned Facebook groups for discussing square dancing. I don’t like to classify people as “left-wing” or “right wing” because I have found that doing so shuts down all intelligent discussion, but it does seem that I am rather “left”, while square dancing has been traditionally associated with the “right”, for some reason.