It isn’t unusual for my day to include a conversation about politics. In fact, on New Year’s Eve, a co-worker’s mother inquired as to my field of study at school:
“I study political science,” I responded.
She looked momentarily perplexed.
“So, what exactly can you do with that?” she asked, revealing a hint of condescension.
“Well, really, quite a lot of things. I can take my studies further into law, like many before me have done, or I can delve into the campaign scene, join the United States Foreign Service, work in urban policy, the United Nations, or for the government—”
“— But it’s really the most frustrating work.”
“Yes, but I love it,” I declared, unabashedly decided in my views and hopeful that the dialogue would end there.
It was not my first experience answering that question, and I confess, I am ever-prepared for the reception of queries like these that have historically mutated into long-winded rants about detested political figures and “useless policies.” I am the perfect target for political outbursts, as a polite listener with active knowledge of relevant subject matter. After all, who better to dominate with strong convictions than a person not only willing, but prepared to hear them?
As one can predict, it becomes very tiresome. Certainly, I am patient — okay, extremely patient, probably to a fault — with people I hardly know, but I enjoy hearing what others have to offer, and believe it is vital to learning. For that reason, it is unfortunate that I am customarily subject to rhetorical regurgitations, featuring the same clichéd statements, often to describe one very narrow perspective of a very complex subject. Even more frustratingly, these ideas are typically lifted directly from some popular commentator or news station. I often feel if I selected one of three television channels for the backdrop of a discussion, the object of my attention would rattle on as a sort of reverberation of it.
Yet, the most disheartening aspect of my experience is that I have come to identify rhetoric, recitation, and strategically placed anecdote as the three central components of most arguments, thereby substantiating the absence of original thought.
To form one’s own thoughts is virtuous; it reveals true command over the mind.
I should note that while I am in no way claiming expertise in my field, the realization that I can refute most arguments I have encountered alarms me.
However, there are exceptional occasions where I enjoy the pleasure of an enlightening and balanced discourse. There are no senseless interruptions, nor domineering conduct, though this is rare. Of course, I am advantageously favored with the conversation of my own friends, whom I select with delicacy. Still, it is a treat to have this with strangers; it makes me hopeful that perhaps there are many I have not yet known, equipped readily with their own ideas and opinions. It is an uplifting notion.
For this reason, I continue to listen, so as to possess greater awareness of society and its various stances.
Furthermore, the most logical and successful conversations seem to occur when we are forced to discuss something of relatively little consequence. Contemplate for a moment a classroom of students made to analyze poetry. That’s what I mean.
Let’s “real talk” for a second. We are in no manner qualified for policymaking because we watch the news sometimes. Similar to how I’m not an expert on ethology because I’ve been to Animal Kingdom, visited a couple of zoos, and peppered my knowledge with documentaries. The main reason any person studies a subject for years is because that level of dedication is necessary to operate in the field. (I’m discussing expertise, not undergraduate education.) We must account for incentive. Let’s stop insisting that if we “fire all of the politicians” and hire “real Americans” the world will be better off. It won’t. That’s frightening.
The truth is, those of us who study politics do this because we have an innate desire — a need — to contribute to the world, to make someone’s life better, to leave a mark. In this, we take pride. I only wish some people would stop diminishing that by pretending their limited knowledge is enough to educate a population. We could all do better to sit back, listen, and reflect on our surroundings, including the others inhabiting them.
After all, when we really thrust ourselves into the lives of others, it becomes plainly clear that politically, we are all really seeking what we each believe is best for all of us. I would sincerely hope so, anyway. But what do we know to be best? And it is this nuance — rather, the manner of getting there, or what there is — that causes the disagreement. While it is sometimes inevitable that we all have different beliefs, we must remember that healthy and thoughtful dialogue is what effects the change and makes a difference.