By Gisela Salim Peyer.
I have navigated several ideological galaxies. I say galaxies because, in many ways, a set of shared opinions behaves like a distinct centre of gravity, distant to and isolated from others.
Inside the walls of the house where I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, the winning creed was the merits of capitalism. It was my father’s proposed solution to all my country’s tragedies—the scarcity of goods that followed nationalization of private enterprises was case on point. The free market was the panacea in which all hopes of recovery could be deposited.
When I crossed the Atlantic to study in the Netherlands, among some student crowds and under certain trees, it was widely understood that corporations were mostly inhumane; that their greed was driving the world to chaos. Now I find myself in Italy, sandwiched between some who applaud closures of borders and separation movements; and others, a more vocal group, who perceive themselves as European Citizens, a product generation of Erasmus exchange programs and cheap Ryanair flights.
I also remember specific interactions: the conviction with which a German student affirmed that high schools in her region were the best in the country (if not Europe); or meeting an American father-of-two in an airport for which the literal interpretation of the bible and the need of a strong military were inextricable truths.
Yet what I remember about these conversations, more than the opinions in themselves, is the tone, the lack of humility, that people use to express themselves. Most of us speak about politics as if we had privileged access to some truth that dissenters cannot grasp. More than listening, we wait for our interlocutors to finish so that we can impose our viewpoints. More than dialogues, conversations become a series of monologues.
It is a vicious game. Surrounding ourselves with likeminded people; getting media filtered to us based on what we have previously ‘liked’; moving on spheres where everyone agrees with us and then fooling ourselves into believing that they are the universe.
It is the same as forgetting that our beliefs are, to a large extent, accidental. Where we were born and who we talk to shape how we think. We would protest to the idea of the mind as an ideological franchise, yet we echo our parents’ opinions when we are young, and the newspapers’ when we are old. And where do our parents’ and newspapers’ opinions come from if not a geographically contingent, often politically convenient, repertoire of ideas?
Whether we interpret Kafka’s Metamorphosis as an allegory on the exploitative nature of bureaucracies of authoritarian regimes or as a tale on the dehumanization of a working man as soon as he becomes unproductive depends on which literature class we attended, on the zip code of our high schools.
Recently, a famous athletic gear brand named after a Greek goddess was plastered in the newspapers for a politically divisive advertising campaign. It celebrated a famous football player who refused to stand up to listen to the American anthem in protest against a present and a past of racism in the United States. The left extolled his bravery and the campaign while the right perceived both as attention-grabbing stunts, claiming that a millionaire sports star was hardly a target of racial oppression.
But why would a fashion brand pick a side in this controversy, potentially alienating its right-leaning consumers? My guess is that it has less to do with moral conviction and more to do with the kind of consumers it wants to target. The Democratic Party and its cosmopolitan beliefs are champions in the coastal states where the urban, rich, and educated are over-represented in the population. Now, the brand would hope, wearing shoes with its logo signals belonging to this group. And the polarization in politics will continue filtering into preferences for coffee, universities and shoes.
Part of the beauty of travelling and relocating and sharing an Uber with a stranger was being pushed to listen people asserting views that stand in contradiction to my values but expressed with the same certitude and coherence that I would employ to argue the opposite. It has made me less eager speak, and more inclined to listen.