The Divides that Blind

My uber driver had driven in 150 cities in the past year.

San Jose was his favorite, which was unsurprising considering the smell of his hybrid and the fact that he snapped the way you do at a poetry slam every time I said something he agreed with. So I asked him what his favorite Southern city was.

“Well I basically avoided the South altogether because I just—I refuse to deal with rednecks.”

I’ve been hearing things like this from other liberals a lot lately. This is what my friend said last month when I told her she should take a road trip through some places like Mississippi and Arkansas:

“Yeah but I just don’t want to go to a bunch of states that voted for Donald Trump. If I’m going to travel, I want to experience other cultures and countries…you know?”

Actually, I don’t. I love the South and I’ve spent a lot of my time in the past three years purposely shooting environmental documentaries in places where I could also have five country stations to choose from at any time and eat barbecue and fried chicken in an unironic way. When I wasn’t doing that, I was living in Vermont and Boston, dressing like the cover of a Bruce Springsteen album, trying to convince my mostly-liberal friends how great it is out there.

As someone who exists in this kindof lonely cross section, I have to say that I feel that I have a deeper understanding of Donald Trump supporters than almost all of the other liberals I know. The weird thing is that I wasn’t talking about national politics most of the time with the people I interviewed and hung out with on my documentary road trips: I was interviewing them about impending threats to their town. And the primary hadn’t even started so the name ‘Donald Trump’ was literally never uttered out of anyone’s mouth.

And yet, it’s true that I have a deeper understanding and I’m reminded of it every time I have a conversation about the election with other liberals. I know that most Trump supporters aren’t bigoted racists, and that’s more than I can say for most of my friends. I know and feel why so many Trump supporters have reached their final straw with the Democratic Party, and that’s more than I can say for most of my friends. When you stop and think about it, it’s not like my understanding is so deep and profound. It’s more like theirs is incredibly weak.

So if we can conclude that simply hanging out with people and in places that swing different than us…even if we’re not directly talking about our differences…leads to us understand them more deeply….then that begs the next question:

Why are my friends so reluctant to have that experience? Why are they committed to avoiding the South?*

The way I see it, there are two possible reasons.

The first is that they reject my hypothesis. They don’t think the experience will lead to deeper understanding. They’re scared they will have no way to bond with anyone they meet or appreciate any of the places they encounter, so soaked will the interactions be with bigotry and Donald Trump bumper stickers.

This is the fear of someone who has never been to a place before, but has seen it on the news a lot.

The second possible reason is that they fear the opposite will happen. That they will actually like the people they meet. What if they even came to understand why they voted for Donald Trump? What would that say about who they had become? That’s the type of fear you hide from yourself. The idea of future you being someone you currently hate is scarier than an imagined week of failed interactions. Even if future you is wiser.

Does ‘understanding better’ equal ‘becoming more like’? In their minds, at least, it’s a really risky gateway drug. As if it’s a linear plane where stepping closer towards the world you find wrong requires you to step away from what’s right. CNN’s on one end and The Blaze is on the other.

Spending so much time in deeply red states and making lasting friendships with people who I know voted for Donald Trump has brought me zero inches closer to condoning his policies. It has, however, drilled a deep well: under my bubbling political convictions lies a deep well. A deep well of compassion for the country we live in and the people who populate it all the while dramatically disagreeing with me. The well doesn’t go left or right; it goes down. For miles.

 

 

*We both know that plenty of people in “the South” voted against Donald Trump. And that hundreds of thousands of people in Long Island voted for him. But this is exploring how and why liberals reduce the South to a certain political ideology and subsequently avoid it.