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May 7, 2013

Selective acceptance

The hypocrisy of progressives’ critiques of conservative views and values belies their limited commitment to tolerance.

Where I’m from has always been a bit of a mystery to me: My address says Georgetown, my Facebook says Jarrell, and my friends back home would say Lakeway. But when people ask, I always give the same answer with typical oversized pride: Texas.

Every time I give this answer on campus, I get the same response. Whomever I’m talking to pauses briefly, and their face takes on a very subtle look of concern. They say, “Oh, where from in Texas?” The question carries the same subtle apprehension, as if my answer could either continue the conversation or induce a frantic departure. When I choose to say “Austin,” people always say, “Oh, okay,” with relief laced through their words. It’s possible that I imagine the emotions that seem to be weaved into this exchange, but I’m pretty sure that they at least occasionally exist in thought. To some students here, it seems that being from Texas is a profession of ignorance, an implied identification with the Republican Party and all its outdated views. But to be from Austin implies a sense of culture and appreciation for diversity and art. These seem to be the ways that people interpret the different labels for my home, and I feel that they reflect a lot about general beliefs here at UChicago.

UChicago is a place where liberal is the status quo, where being progressive isn’t in any way progressive—it’s just what’s expected. I regularly hear housemates bombarded with criticism for embracing conservative views on any given social issue, be it gay marriage, abortion, women’s rights, etc. What bothers me most about these criticisms is not their content, but their tone. They reek of an air that says, “You fool, you incredibly dense caveman, how could you ever believe that? You must either be stupid or a bad person.” The offender, regardless of the soundness of her arguments, is always eventually quieted by the overwhelming shower of progressiveness that rains down upon her.

In a way, I’ve seen this kind of conversation before. Venture into the rural plains and hills of the Texas countryside and you will find more than your fair share of good-natured, kind people who are also undeniably racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, or just plain intolerant. Being liberal or progressive in any way in those parts is just asking for it. You either learn to keep quiet about politics or you get run out of town with criticism. Again, it’s not the criticism that’s the problem, but the tone. Anyone who believes that two people of the same sex have a right to marry is a fool, or simply a godless heathen. Being different makes you more than different—it makes you fundamentally flawed.

What I find strange about these situations is that, while I have generally progressive political views on social issues, I was more comfortable in an environment where those very views were the ones condemned, not the ones condemning. This may simply stem from a lifetime spent in a sea of conservatism, but perhaps it also stems from the very nature of what progressiveness is supposed to represent. Progressiveness is touted as the flag-bearer of tolerance, of open minds and thoughtful souls. So when I see progressive thinkers so intolerant and accusatory of conservative views, I can’t help but be bothered by the hypocrisy. It’s the only nice thing you can say about their beliefs, but at least most unapologetically racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic individuals aren’t pretending to be tolerant. While their views may be generally accepted as wrong, at the very least they’re not alleging to be something they’re not. This may be what makes me uncomfortable in the UChicago political scene: Intolerance is a problem regardless of how it’s clothed, but when it’s dressed in the attire of openness, it especially irks me.

Regardless, the larger point is about intolerance—disguised or not. Throughout our school, this city, my home state, and indeed the entire country, political persuasion is far too often treated as a metric of intelligence or quality of being. But the fact is that what you believe does not necessarily imply anything about who or what you are. This is a connection that is made far too frequently, and it impedes not only political peace, but also political progress.

Liam Leddy is a first-year in the College.

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