Many people who know me know might be surprised to know that I used to be a political and religious conservative.
Confessions of a Former Conservative
My parents were neoconservatives who believed that the free market would solve all the world’s ills. I absorbed their political ideology as a child, and naturally I thought Reagan was the Second Coming and the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire.
I was also raised Mormon, which is a very conservative religion. (Nowadays, I would describe the Mormon church as homophobic, misogynistic, and racist, not to mention authoritarian, dogmatic, and repressive.) Most Mormons are both social and economic conservatives and consistently vote Republican.
As a child and adolescent, I lived a privileged, middle-class life in the Midwest. My extended family was quietly racist (though I didn’t recognize it at the time). I had very limited contact with people of color and I did not know anyone who was openly LGBT.
When I graduated from high school, I moved to Utah (a very White and very conservative state) and attended the Mormon-sponsored Brigham Young University (BYU). Practically everyone who attended the school was Mormon.
When I turned 19, I went on a 2-year proselytizing mission in Brazil, where I tried to convince people to join the Mormon church, which I believed at the time was the “one and only true” church of Jesus Christ. I met my wife at Brigham Young and we were married in the Mormon temple.
In college, I studied political science. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the program was very conservative. I read Milton Friedman and Friedrick Hayek, the founding fathers of what we now call neo-liberalism, and I never read Marx or any critical theorists. There was no Women’s Studies or Race Studies program at BYU. I don’t think I ever heard the word “feminist”, except as a pejorative.
Needless to say, when I graduated, I was pretty far Right on the political spectrum. If someone had asked me about social issues, I probably would have been closer to what was the center at the time, but race, LGBT, and gender issues really weren’t even on my radar. On economic issues, I was neo-liberal, and on foreign policy, I was hawkish.
Today, I’m left of many people on the Left, a self-described radical. I have participated in street protests and been arrested for an act of civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry. I call myself a feminist (though I still have work to do on myself, due the legacy of patriarchy). I support Black Lives Matter (though I am still trying to root out the effects of White supremacy in myself). I am pro-choice and pro-LGBT equality.
The last election cycle, I voted for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. I am anti-capitalist and I am increasingly sympathetic to anarchist political philosophy (which is not synonymous with “anarchy” and is actually a sophisticated political philosophy. If you’re curious, I think Ruth Kinna’s Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide is a good place to start.)
I am also an atheist now (actually, more of a post-theist). And I am a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, which is a liberal religious association. I am also pagan, which also puts me in a very liberal religious category.
“There But For the Grace of God Go I”
In spite of the trajectory of my life, nowadays I have trouble feeling much sympathy for religious and political conservatives. For the most part, I avoid them. I usually unfollow them when they show up on my Facebook stream. Online and in real life, I live in a mostly liberal “silo”. When I do engage “the other side”, it’s usually with contempt. It’s almost like I’ve forgotten where I came from.
I notice a lot of my progressive and radical friends and associates also share my contempt and impatience with conservatives–or for liberals who are not far enough Left on the political spectrum. A lot of them probably come from liberal or Leftist backgrounds, but some of them may have been conservatives early on, like me. But regardless, few of us seem to have much compassion or patience for conservatives now.
There’s good reason for this. The beliefs and policies of religious and political conservatives have hurt–and continue to hurt–a lot of people. People of color. LGBT people. Women and girls. And poor people. So there’s good reason for contempt and impatience.
But I wonder if we are in danger in dehumanizing conservatives. For example, I have a friend who tried to convince me that the brains of conservatives are wired differently than the brains of liberals. (I think this was derived from a misunderstanding of Jonathan Haidt’s theory about the different moral values of liberals and conservatives.) If that’s the case, then how do you explain someone like me, someone who used to be a conservative and, over time, became a progressive and then a radical?
In my case, this process of transitioning from the Right to the Left side of the political spectrum did not happen overnight. It look almost 20 years.
There were many influences which pulled me in that direction. An anthropology professor who encouraged us to think objectively about our own religious and cultural paradigms. Being exposed to third-world poverty conditions in Brazil. Moving to the politically liberal Indiana University in Bloomington for law school. Taking a class in feminism. Meeting more people of color, people who are openly LGBT, and poor people. Having a wife who is willing to call me on my chauvinist shit. Being introduced to anti-capitalist and anarchist theories by some fellow pagans. Associating with religiously and politically liberal Unitarians. And reading the comments on my blogs by people who were willing to call me out when I was being close-minded or perpetuating sexism, racism, classism, etc.
In short, it was other people who pulled me in new directions. People who were willing to talk to me and work with me. People who willing to speak about their own experience. People who helped me feel safe enough to question some of my long-held and unexamined assumptions. People who showed compassion and patience … qualities which I am still not good at showing those I disagree with.
How Should Liberals Engage Conservatives?
I’m not going to lecture anybody on how to relate to people on the other side of the political spectrum. For one thing, I really have not been a good example of it. But everything I have read has convinced me that relating to people is more effective than debating them. Facts are less persuasive than stories, especially stories from our own experience. And being compassionate to people makes them more receptive to new ideas and experiences.
Recently, during a break in a deposition I was taking, my opposing counsel made a comment, which sparked a conversation about religion and science. He was a conservative Christian who did not accept the Big Bang or evolution. From his perspective, a God-less world must be a meaningless world. I could have related to him, given my religious history.
But I’m embarrassed to say that I just ridiculed him. I was more concerned about “winning” the argument than persuading him. (In my defense, I had my lawyer “hat” on, and so I was already in an adversarial mood.) Afterward, I realized I had missed an opportunity. I could have at least shown him that an atheist can be compassionate. I might at least have given him pause. Instead, I probably just deepened his entrenchment.
Like me, most progressives and radicals seem to only talk to other progressives and radicals. And when we do engage those we disagree with, we often show contempt and ridicule them. This just doesn’t seem to be a good way of growing our numbers. And that is what we want, isn’t it? I will tell you, as a former Christian missionary, I never converted anyone I wasn’t kind to.
I’m not suggesting that we show tolerance for intolerance or patience with patriarchy, White supremacy, hetero-/cis-normativity, or xenophobia. But I think we can show more patience with people, make space for them to grow in our direction, and to give them time to question their deeply held values and unexamined assumptions. To borrow a Christian phrase, we can hate the sin (i.e., homophobia, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, etc.), but love the sinner.
To my progressive and radical friends, I want you know that people do change. I am living, breathing proof of that. So don’t give up on your conservative friends and family. Not everyone will change, of course, but some will–though it will probably take longer than we are comfortable with. But we can either help that process or hinder it–depending on whether we show compassion or contempt. After all, if those of us on the Left cannot show compassion for our fellow human beings, who will?