I’m a lipstick-wearing, red-meat-eating, Diet-Coke-drinking, heterosexual, cisgender patriotic American feminist of Sicilian and French Canadian descent who can recite both “Who’s On First?” and “Little Women” in their entirety without breaking a sweat.
I don’t like beer, scented candles, pie or sports, I prefer cats to dogs, and I drive a classic non-fuel-efficient convertible, which my husband of 28 years and I often take to the casino. I believe in a woman’s right to choose and hope that God loves me, even though I’m not sure I believe God exists in the first place.
So what part of that made you want to throw me into the alligator moat? Was it my use of the term “cisgender”? Wearing lipstick or wanting women to have health care? The mention of God alongside a confession of wavering belief?
It was preferring cats to dogs, wasn’t it?
Here’s what I have to guard against doing these days: I sweep too swiftly past a cursory acknowledgment of differences between people in search of consecrating divisions. I find myself gathering up reasons to distinguish my own clan from rival ones as if I’m working a pyramid scheme in reverse. I’m an omnivore; she’s a vegetarian. I’m letting our differences define us.
How can she NOT understand this point I’m making? What is WRONG with her? She, of course, is thinking the same about me. Or at least, that’s what I fear — I am, I suppose, easy to judge, if you’re so inclined. Not exactly a woman of mystery.
Is it surprising, then, that I hesitate to discuss significant issues with those whose viewpoints I don’t think align with my own? Even when we’re on the same side, we can end up yelling at each other with a level of viciousness usually reserved for drivers vying for the same parking space if one little piece of their worldview seems slightly askew.
Political discourse has become an oxymoron; nothing is off-limits; rhetoric has been replaced by rock-throwing. Everything encourages us to regard those who aren’t with us as against us, and to judge them as treasonous, sinister, desperate or — dare I say? — deplorable.
Then I — and we, yes, I’m going with “we” — unearth justifications for our point of view the way hounds hunt for bones. (It’s not that I don’t like dogs, you see; it’s just that I really like cats.) It’s not enough to feel we’re right: we want to prove we’re right, to ourselves as much as to anyone else (maybe more so). That’s why we find ourselves becoming positively evangelical about things we know are none of our business, such as who eats what and who sleeps with whom.
Our beliefs define us. And who wants to be undefined in today’s world? So we scrape together convenient truths and build our identities out of them.
A recent article by Gina Kolata in the New York Times, for example, follows the uproar over new scientific evidence suggesting that, despite years of being lectured about the damage a single sausage could cause our overall well-being, “an individual cannot conclude that he or she will be better off not eating red meat” based on existing studies.
Heads of major schools of medicine are weighing in; those studying the climate are weighing in; I’m weighing in (or to be more precise, weighing the locally farmed steaks we’re grilling this weekend).
We’re having the filets with home-schooled potatoes, though, because I’m not part of the cult where carbohydrates are seen as the food of the devil. The Paleos treat carbs the way the Puritans treated witches: Dunk them in water, and if they bob to the surface, they must be evil and destroyed. “Get thee behind me, pasta!” cry the Paleos as they recoil, secretly worried that they’ll be tempted despite repeatedly whispering “hunger is part of the transition.”
Truly a tribe of renown, but definitely not my tribe.
If we’re in danger of losing our souls, it’s not because of what we’re putting into our mouths — it’s because we’re being driven by our guts and not our brains. We push away ideas that aren’t form-fitted into our existing biases with the gesture a toddler uses to reject food she’s never tasted. But as adults, we justify our uninformed instincts and hunker down in our original position, shaking our heads without noticing there’s an empty sound where original thought should be.
When we encounter a space we haven’t yet filled with bias and belief, it gets filled with alligators and other monsters, making us wary and frightened. We don’t know where to find comfort. We don’t know who counts as a true ally or a genuine friend. Lonely and bereft, we’re tempted to become part of a mob just to be able to hang out with people.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Community calls for compromise and trust. I’ll cook a vegan lasagna and somebody else can grill while, in the background, the baseball game plays, and your puppy runs in the yard, and people talk with patience and curiosity about their politics and personal choices, unburdened by prefabricated groupthink. The devil, bored, goes searching for beer, while God — who may or may not exist — lies half-listening in the hammock. As I start reciting “Little Women,” everybody quickly packs up to home.
It could be worse: There’s actually plenty of beer.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.