“Oh, but you’re a conservative.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that statement applied to me since coming to Claremont, even leveled by close friends. Although I know it’s not true, I can’t help but be hurt by it time and time again.
What gets me is not that I’m being written off, my opinion dismissed without any further thought. It’s that one word that I still, to this day, take as the ultimate insult: conservative.
I’m offended not because I assume I’m being labeled as someone who wants smaller government, free markets, a strong national defense and individual liberties. When that word is applied to me in a largely-liberal setting such as Claremont, I perceive it to mean that I’m a bigot, a racist, a sexist homophobic capitalistic imperialistic pig. It’s an insult, plain and simple.
It’s not okay that we use ideological labels like “conservative” and “liberal” as insults.
Because when Claremont students see a “conservative” idea, they ignore it. The word is like an off-switch that when flipped, stops any engagement with the argument on a level where students would enter a state of mind that’s open to accepting new modes of thinking.
I don’t think this is intentional on the part of students — it’s just that because “conservative” is somewhat of a dirty word, this mentality slips into our subconscious. I know I’m more critical than accepting of ideas with a “conservative” label. I recognize my bias and I’m trying to stop.
What’s more, just as liberal students have no desire to learn conservative arguments, conservative students have no desire to learn liberal arguments.
And we lose a lot of potential friendships when we refuse to be friends with people on the other side of the aisle. There are a lot of reasons why people might believe what they believe, and it’s impossible to understand someone’s entire backstory. A person’s political beliefs are not the whole of who someone is. Besides, there are a lot of subjects to discuss beyond politics.
It’s downright foolish to believe that anyone’s ideologies can be fully captured in a single word. Though I am most definitely a liberal, I hold some traditionally conservative opinions. Almost everyone’s opinions are a hodgepodge of viewpoints based on differing sets of values.
After all, these differences (and similarities) are what makes democracy work. The shades of gray are where most people agree, no matter their ideological label, and because of this we should do all we can to preserve the gray on both sides.
In this political atmosphere, there’s pressure to break down beliefs into short, easy-to-digest labels. The words “liberal” and “conservative” add to this atmosphere of oversimplification, which is what gives way to negative stereotypes.
My firsthand experience with these labels stems from what happened the summer preceding my senior year of high school, when I stumbled upon and ended up attending a Republican youth convention.
Let me back up. After touring the Claremont Colleges, my mom and I went to Santa Barbara for her work. The hotel we stayed at was not far from Reagan Ranch, which made it an ideal location to host the teenagers attending the Young America’s Foundation conference hosted at the ranch.
YAF, for those unfamiliar, is a conservative youth organization associated with Ben Shapiro, a right wing commentator. I, being bored and missing the company of people my age, decided to infiltrate this conference, posing as a conservative.
As the leader of my school’s environmental organization and an overall extremely outspoken liberal activist, I was prepared to hear some stupid racist Republican rhetoric that I could then text to my friends, cementing my reputation as a comedic genius. That did not happen.
I started asking the very friendly, very fun conference-goers about their views. They, thinking that I was a fellow conservative, began to explain conservative arguments in a logical, pleasant and non-combative way.
This was a shock, considering that my only exposure to real conservative ideas prior to this experience involved me debating conservatives using my own facts and logic. Exasperated, they would say to me, “Ben Shapiro says it better, look him up.” Needless to say, I never looked him up.
Hearing conservative arguments told to me like I was a friend made me open my mind to them, and to blend in, I couldn’t argue. I just gently asked questions to point out flaws in their arguments, in order to have the logical fallacies explained to me. And when I talked, I found that people are much more open to changing their minds if they think you’re on “their side,” myself included.
Finally, at the end of the conference, I revealed to everyone that I was, in fact, a liberal.
It did not go well.
Suddenly, I was the enemy, a juicy rabbit that a pack of wild dogs couldn’t wait to tear to pieces. Instead of careful explanations, all around me I heard hostile, accusatory arguments.
And I argued back. It was difficult to keep composure. Because I knew — I knew I could never admit that they were right about anything. If I did, I might as well tell them that all liberals are dumb and misinformed.
If we stop using loaded labels like “liberal” and “conservative” and start treating everyone like a friend who is inclined to agree, we can restart the idea flow from left to right. We should also strive to be that friend — the friend who listens with the intention of agreeing, who is willing to discuss until you reach an understanding. The endgame of a discussion shouldn’t be “winning” the argument, it should be coming to a consensus.
If we stop with the labels, we’ll also stop the idea that in a room full of conservatives, one liberal represents all liberal ideas and vice versa. We need to recognize that each person’s experiences, and by extension opinions, are radically different from one another.
In Claremont, conservatives have this problem every day. We can fix it if we stop using “conservative” and “liberal” as insults and start looking at people’s views more holistically, as a group of individual opinions.
Margot Rosenblatt SC ’23 is from Manhattan, New York. She would like to thank her friend Connor of Russell Springs, Kentucky, for putting up with her non-stop questions about his political beliefs.