Conversations that go beyond the page bring deeper level of understanding
Last month, I had a visitor to my office here at Friends University in Wichita. I knew who he was — he’s written and called me before — but this was the first time we’d met in person. It was a pleasure to talk with him, even though he was there to let me know how wrong he thought I was.
He is, you see, a reader of these columns, and was a strong supporter of President Trump. I wasn’t, and in writing about Kansas politics had said so, multiple times. That was fine with him; as a well-read fellow, he was no more surprised to see a professor of political science advocate for policies that most Republicans like himself disagree with than anyone else would be to see an oil company president advocate for policies that most Democrats disagree with.
Moreover, as a lifelong gay Christian in conservative Kansas, he was thoroughly familiar what it means to be a minority, and to hold an unpopular point of view. So he didn’t come by the office to correct or challenge or convert me. Rather, he just wanted me to see things from his perspective. The resulting conversation was a real delight.
This is a too-rare thing in American politics today, Kansas politics included, for many reasons. Demographic and socio-economic changes have led to the conceptual (and sometimes literal) segregation of people with differences in opinion: between red states and blue states, and between rural areas and urban ones.
Developments in campaign finance, election rules, and party structures have all encouraged politicians to maximize the differences built into our two-party system, with the result that the demonization of those you disagree with has been normalized.
Most of all, social media technologies make it easy for us to express ourselves anonymously and vindictively. So when I say I enjoyed being able to sit with a reader of my columns, to calmly consider our disagreements and reflect upon the words we use to express them, I’m not kidding.
A little more than a year ago, I was invited by Insight Kansas to start writing columns on public affairs in our state. As someone who studies and teaches about politics, and as someone who has newspapers and opinion-writing and blogging in his blood (my wife and I met while working at our campus newspaper), writing short essays like this one is nothing new. But I’ve appreciated the new audience which that invitation has given me--and that includes readers who take the time to reach out, whether by phone or e-mail or in person, and actually want to talk.
Not to change minds, necessarily, but to fully express themselves, rather than sticking with cheap shots on Facebook or snarky memes on Twitter (which, yes, I’m sometimes guilty of too).
I don’t mean to sugar-coat civic life. We are all–as Kansans and Americans--going through some profound shifts in our thinking, and the fights over those shifting priorities–regarding race, education, gender, economics, the climate, and more–are fierce. I don’t know what things will look like when we get through to the other side of those fights, or if we ever will. Still, I’m grateful to be able to observe and write about it all, and for those who take democracy seriously enough to want to talk about what they’ve read, and keep the conversation going. And to the extent that anyone who has read this column to the end is one of them: my thanks to you as well.
Russell Arben Fox, Ph.D., runs the history and politics major and the honors program at Friends University in Wichita.