I distinctly remember the moment when my summer-program professor announced to a Stanford University lecture hall full of students that same-sex marriage had been legalized in the U.S. I remember joining in the flurry of movement, whooping along with everyone’s ecstatic cheers — which seemed to last forever even though they were really just a split instance — and the elated hug I shared with my dear friend Rose.
A few years earlier, I might not have cheered. My conservative, Tea Party Republican parents only exposed me to one political perspective. Growing up in conservative south Texas, I learned that there was only one answer to any political question, and it was my parents’ answer. Marriage was between a man and woman. People were poor because they didn’t work hard enough. For a long time, I dutifully believed these assumptions without ever questioning them.
Before my freshman year of high school, a friend sold me and my parents on a camp she had attended called Great Books Summer Program, during which students read and discussed literature and took classes on different subjects. It was there that I met Rose. Rose and I were polar opposites in many ways. She lived in Berkeley. She attended an expensive private school. And her family was atheist. My jaw dropped when she told me all this offhandedly, like it was normal. But despite our differences, Rose and I bonded over our mutual love of literature, the way our loud voices never falter, and our delight in the sensation of melting chocolate sticking to the roofs of our mouths.
“So is Texas really like it’s shown in the news?” she asked me once, her eyes lit up with curiosity. “You know, racist and rude?”
I explained to her that while I did not know many liberals, the Republicans I knew were not the greedy monsters that liberal cable news networks often depicted. My parents exemplify the American Dream: Both come from modest backgrounds and worked diligently for everything they own. My dad held down multiple jobs through college, graduated, and moved across the country with only a car he borrowed from his parents and $5,000 of debt to his name. My mom worked at the oil producer Valero as a chemical engineer before becoming manager of her department, and my dad worked at the same company as an electrical engineer before quitting and starting his own small manufacturing company.
To this day, it is not uncommon for my dad to spend his entire weekend at work. My parents never spend money without emphasizing its value, and they often tell me how many hours I would have to work at a minimum-wage job to afford a shirt I want. My family doesn’t understand that their success is the exception to cyclical poverty, but I see how they are frustrated when people want to increase their taxes on the money they have worked for.
But while other camp attendees listening to our conversations met my political views with intolerance, Rose launched into respectful counterarguments — ones that continued throughout the two weeks of camp that summer. We discussed stereotypes, abortion, free speech, racism, and income inequality. She was often surprised by my views, but she never judged me. She just questioned me — for example, by asking how I could automatically dismiss those who are not able to work. I was also surprised by her views, but never judged her — just questioned how she, coming from a comfortable economic background, would function with less funds, given her support for wealth redistribution. By the end of the week, I discovered that I was more moderate than Republican. Now, four years later, I identify as a Democrat.
But I found that the transition back home from camp wasn’t easy. With Rose, I could say anything I believed in without fear of judgment, could distinguish what I believed from what I had been taught to believe — and, furthermore, could determine when I didn’t know enough to take a stance. In my own home, though, anything I said that didn’t align with my parents’ views catalyzed lectures. For example, after Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair article was released, my parents still referred to her as “he” and “Bruce.” When I challenged this, my parents ranted about how people will next want to “identify as and marry squirrels.”
Then it became clear to me: The restrictive mindset my parents had instilled in me was holding me back. Open spaces of free speech, like that in which Rose and I learned from each other, seem like the only ones in which we can truly intellectually grow. Even if an open dialogue cannot ultimately change someone’s opinion to reflect your own, it may help you understand and humanize their reasoning, or it may solidify your own argument.
I thought of this recently, when the University of Chicago faced a wave of backlash in response to their decision to refuse to accommodate trigger warnings, supposedly in an attempt to protect free speech. Twitter was clogged with people speaking out against these actions, saying they expected better from a school like the University of Chicago. While these protestors’ intentions were noble — we need to ensure people have safe spaces — it seems to me that forcing a culture of political correctness is not that different from only exposing your child to Fox News. Yes, safe spaces should exist, and yes, political correctness is important. But without the ability to challenge these ideas, to have uncomfortable and, yes, even politically incorrect conversations, we might stifle students’ ability to understand all sides of an issue. We might stifle people like my past self, who needed the exposure to reconsider their beliefs. By cutting off these viewpoints, by classifying any questioning of political correctness as oppression, we are giving up something of immense intellectual value without fully assessing the effects of doing so.
Before Rose, my viewpoints were definitely not politically correct. What would I be doing now if she had simply walked away when I told her I thought marriage should be between a man and a woman? If she had gotten miffed instead of engaging with me, maybe I would have taken an internship recently offered to me with Blake Fahrenthold. Maybe I would not stand up to my parents when they misgender a friend of mine. Maybe I would not have been overcome with joy that day in June 2015, when America took a milestone leap toward same-sex marriage.
I do not have a solution, a perfect balance between political correctness and free speech that could honor educational enrichment without encroaching on another person’s boundaries. What I do know is this: that version of myself — before I met Rose and benefited from having hard, often politically incorrect conversations — scares me.
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