Diversity Summit: ‘Understanding the American Right’ explores U.S. political divide

Recall how it feels to wait in line to board an airline flight. You try to be first in line to get a good seat on the flight — anything but the middle seat. But once the boarding process starts, you find that even if you are first in line, a lot of people get to board before you. First, it’s families travelling with small children, then people who paid extra to get on first, then people who serve in the military, then people who need extra help to board the plane and then, finally, you can get on and choose from the remaining seats. Your head tells you that this process is reasonable, but you still find yourself frustrated and feeling slighted.

On Thursday, Brian Shimamoto, assistant director of CU Boulder’s Housing and Dining Services and Human Resources, introduced the event “Understanding the ‘Deep Story’ of the American Right” with this anecdote. “It’s not about what makes sense of the facts, it’s about how we feel,” he said. The discussion was part of CU’s spring 2017 Diversity and Inclusion Summit.

When asked about why they decided to attend this discussion, the predominantly liberal audience responded with the desire to understand people with opposite views and to develop skills to have constructive conversations and find common ground. They felt that, regardless of political opinion, most people feel uncomfortable, or even unsafe, in speaking their mind.

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s recently published book, “Strangers in Their Own Land,” largely informed the discussion’s content. A renowned sociologist based in Berkeley, Hochschild planted herself in the most conservative part of Louisiana, where she got to know people with polar opposite views as her own, including Tea Party members. An article by Hochschild gives a shorter version of her observations, saying, “The deep story was a feels-as-if-it’s-true story, stripped of facts and judgments, that reflected the feelings underpinning opinions and votes.”

Running with this theme, the presenters projected the presidential election electoral college results. Of the states immediately bordering Colorado, only New Mexico is also colored blue on the map. “We’re surrounded,” came a reply from the audience.  Other people added “by the other” and “by hatred” after further prompting.

Discussion drew out the faults of the binary party system and how it easily stereotypes people into bleeding-heart liberals or redneck conservatives. This limited understanding went both ways, and the conversation helped to draw out the different perspectives.

“It takes away the stories and the people and their voice,” said facilitator Erin Dewese, Assistant Director at the Center for Student Involvement.

“I feel a lot of frustration towards the right, and then hearing in-depth research on why they feel the way they do made them feel less evil to me,” said Carmen Marxuach, student assistant at the Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement.

Shimamoto concluded the discussion by saying, “If we surround ourselves with people who think like us, then we aren’t being challenged.” According to him, purposefully seeking out other opinions and experiences not only encourages personal growth, but is necessary to bring more empathy to this country’s political climate.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Sarah Farley at sarah.farley@colorado.edu.

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