This post is a part of a series called “Help Me Understand,” where we practice the art of dialogue about important issues. The focus is to come around the table and learn to have healthy conversations with people of diverse backgrounds in order to learn.
Cameron was without question one of my favorite customers. He would visit in the early mornings and order his usual. If you’ve ever worked at a coffee shop, bar or cafe, then you know how it is. You get attached to your customers, and you begin to count on their unchanging order just as they count on your smile behind the counter.
His order had been the same since the beginning of time, or at least since I started working as a barista. It was a large, hot vanilla latte. It never changed, regardless of the weather outside.
Bleary-eyed in the mornings, we would chat about water conservation and breaking the cycle of homelessness. We swapped book recommendations and philosophical wonderings across the espresso bar. I looked forward to our conversations set against the sound of milk steaming and coffee grinding.
I looked forward to our conversations set against the sound of milk steaming and coffee grinding.
One morning with Cameron will be forever seared into my mind. It was 2016, and Donald Trump has just begun his presidential campaign. The idea was as laughable as it was horrific to me. Loudly, I announced to my boss that I actually knew someone supporting Trump’s campaign. Cameron was there, and he looked at me.
“I’m voting for Trump,” he said.
My jaw dropped, and my cheeks flushed from embarrassment. I was confused. I couldn’t help feeling indignant—betrayed, too. This was my Cameron. We had shared all those early morning talks, and we agreed on so much. How could he support that man?
My reductionistic perspective of politics was glitching. I had only ever associated the supporters of Trump with faceless racists, so it knocked me off guard when the well-spoken and thoughtful Cameron shared his political stance.
I had been greeted by his gentle gratitude and intellectually-stimulating conversation at ungodly hours of the morning. I had seen his humility and his heart for the marginalized. I truly respected him. Then, I found out about the politics. I was forced to reconcile my contrasting beliefs, and it was then that I realized how much more complex we are as humans than mere labels of a political party.
I realized how much more complex we are as humans than mere labels of a political party.
Cameron taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve learned to date when it comes to politics: there are kind and intelligent people who don’t believe the same things I do. Revolutionary, I know. This was at the beginning of the 2016 presidential race, a race fueled by hatred and fear. Polarity was encouraged and the opposite party demonized. Those who weren’t “for us” were evil, twisted half-humans who had no heart and no intellect. This was the stance taken by both parties.
In the years ensuing, things haven’t necessarily gotten better, but Cameron serves as a milestone in my thinking. In the moments when the political climate begins to feel hopeless, I think on our friendship. I never want my political biases to override the opportunity for someone to share their thoughts with me. I never want to dismiss what someone has to say because we don’t identify with the same political party.
As the 2020 presidential race looms ahead, the need to talk to and understand those with differing views becomes more urgent. Without mutual understanding, the opposing party becomes an imaginary enemy and the urge to yell into the echo chamber becomes the only way we know how to cope. That’s dangerous on multiple levels.
As the 2020 presidential race looms ahead, the need to talk to and understand those with differing views becomes more urgent.
We don’t need radicalization, we need rationality. Diffusing our conversations about politics is crucial for our current social climate.
How do we begin? When conversations steer toward politics, we can learn to hold space for others and listen to what they have to say. When fully engaged, we aren’t thinking about how to respond. We are truly listening.
What do they believe? More importantly, why do they believe it?
These conversations are essential for making any progress. If you hear a particularly compelling argument, here’s some good news: You’re allowed to change your mind. In fact, I’d be concerned if you didn’t change your mind on a policy or two in the process of interacting with those who have a different experience and story.
If we are to move forward, united, then we cannot lose sight of the humanity in one another.