Whatever your personal reaction to the song "Accidental Racist" may be, the immediate controversy that followed is a reminder that voices appearing to call for unity are subject to intense scrutiny. And that's a good thing. You can't just walk up to someone on the other side of highly divisive social issues and pretend that those issues are easy to resolve. Where a critical response to "Accidental Racist" might go too far, though, is in implying that the inherent awkwardness of an attempt at dialogue is a reason not to try to connect at all.
To a tea-party-affiliated grassroots activist group called the Tennessee 9-12 Project, I am an "Accidental Elitist." A recent internal email from the group's moral leader conveys our relationship well:
Last year we were contacted by a liberal who boasted that he disagrees with us about everything... or nearly everything. He has completed all of his studies but his final year at one of America's prestigious Ivy League law schools and reports that his name is Joshua. I've not checked his ID but some of you have met him and you must decide if anything or everything that he has said to us is true.
When I cold-called this man months ago, I asked if it would be possible to film a documentary about his group's activities as an attempt at civil dialogue. Not only did he say yes, he invited me to a movie with his wife and other members of the group shortly thereafter. The film, Last Ounce of Courage, was a fairly accurate depiction how a local government is constrained under the First Amendment from implicitly endorsing Christianity as a preferred religion. The "courage" in the title belongs to a war-hero mayor who is arrested for putting a cross back up on a building after a civil liberties group had successfully petitioned for its removal. When my new contact bought my dinner later that night and called me "brother," I was sorting through some conflicting feelings.
In the following months, I interviewed and ate meals with members of the group. We laughed together and talked about many things, including politics. One man told me at the end of our first interview that I was a conservative at heart because I was taking an entrepreneurial risk by filming my documentary. He smiled reassuringly when he said it, and to be honest, it made me proud for exactly the reason he cited. There was value in taking a risk on this idea and trying to support myself while filming. That type of personal development was something he really cared about.
Once my skepticism about the authenticity of the group's passion started to dissipate, I developed a much more worrisome response to its advocacy efforts: I began to wonder whether my personal knowledge of politics could really stack up against the hours of policy research that the most committed members seemed to do each day. They inundated me with complex analysis of facts -- not with emotional appeals. One man to whom I spoke about Obamacare was a health care industry expert who had lived in Canada. He made sure I got a copy of his book when I left our interview.
It's true that I hardly trust anything their news sources say, but I'm not sure I could really say that I was as intimately familiar with the issues or as demonstrably devoted to seeking out the truth. The leader's comment on not having seen my ID wasn't a rude jab at my personal trustworthiness; it was representative of his way of scrutinizing an unfriendly world in which complacent elites think that groups like his buy everything they're told.
Members of this group and I have plenty of reasons not to like or trust each other. Their arguments are among the most illiberal I have ever heard anyone seriously make -- these last few months have only made me feel more strongly about my own politics. Even so, I don't have to agree with the way someone thinks to respect her as a citizen with the dignity to make up her mind in her own way. The scary -- and empowering -- side of that respect is discovering that there is unknown value in the way my opponent thinks that I need to engage to appreciate.
The end to the mass email I've quoted reads as follows: "I also happen to consider Joshua among my friends, now." I reciprocate that sentiment. Being friends with him is awkward, raises questions for others about my commitment to my side of the issues, and is worth a shot. My experience has been a small step toward civility in my own life, and I hope it can convince others that a more general civility is possible. If you want to support me in exploring how we can have tough conversations as a people, you can find the Kickstarter page for my documentary here.
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