When the Students of our Government, Politics, and Citizenship class went to the state capital to testify in support of a gun control bill that expands the background checks, I carefully wrote out and timed a two minute testimony that I read to my senators. I explained why I cared about the bill, how the bill would help protect my future, how it was an important step in the right direction. I gave some figures about the widespread public support of the bill. It was one of those surreal experiences, the kind that you read about on the news.
A little over ten OES Students testified in support of the bill, broken up into sets of three or four between opposing arguments. The Senators had taken on mostly listening roles as the day wore on (so many people showed up to testify, they had to offer multiple overflow rooms), and so I was more than a little surprised when at the end of one of the last student’s testimony, one of the Senators with the opposition asked a question.
“Will any of the students from your class be testifying in opposition of this bill?”
One of my classmates eloquently explained that Gun Control was a topic that the entire class had taken a common ground on and had independently reached, not a position that was taught or pushed in any way by the school. It was a brilliant response, one that covered all the bases and simultaneously further pushed for expanding background checks.
Yet the question stuck with me. In my experience, the people of Oregon Episcopal School are as Pacific Northwest as it gets. You will find a lot of agreement on the “hot button” issues of gun control, same sex marriage, how welfare should be treated, and who deserves to be the next President. This is not inherently that surprising-in a big city on the Left Coast, our Liberal nature is almost assured. This is also not a condemnation of how OES teaches-the teachers do a great job of fairly presenting every side of an argument. It can just be extremely difficult to have a stimulating conversation about particular topics when everyone agrees.
For this reason, testifying wasn’t the most important thing I did during my trip to Salem. Nor was meeting the person who represents Oregon Episcopal School’s district, though that too was an incredible opportunity to see how politics really work. The most important thing I did in Salem was talk to the people who disagreed with me, from the terrifyingly articulate and effective NRA spokesmen to everyday gun advocates.
These conversations were important for two reasons. First, when the only source of conservative media I can find is Fox News, I spend a lot more time finding things to ridicule as insensitive or backwards than I do finding effective arguments. Because the news system is so polarized, these articles are not looking to cater to me or change my mind on any topic, but to be a source of information for people who already think that way. Because of this polarization, it can be difficult to really understand where gun control opponents are coming from. To hear effective human voices explaining why they opposed the bill makes it a lot harder to dismiss their opinions. But these conversations were also important because they forced me to really consider my words, and make a compelling case for my own beliefs. It is pretty easy to win an argument in a classroom when everyone agrees that less guns is better. You don’t really grow when things are easy. I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about facing down people with effective statistics and pathos arguments, and standing by my own position.
And I am a little afraid that these conversations will stop happening. School districts are becoming more and more segregated by race and class as a result of gentrification, something Portland is familiar with. We self-censor and homogenize in our social networks, unfollowing people who post political beliefs we disagree with (or indeed, people who post political beliefs at all-you can find many instances online or among your friends where people find such posts indulgent and unnecessary). The politicians themselves are so polarized, the Government itself shut down.
It is absolutely imperative that we not lose these conversations. Without a difference in opinion, it becomes all to easy to vilify anyone who disagrees, and the last thing America needs is a greater number of divides.