The Importance of Seeing People

seeing

There’s a striking difference between two groups of my acquaintance: the ones who encountered different people through college, travel, or a move, and the ones who stayed put in the same circle of white, middle class, conservative Christians.

The former are (with notorious exceptions) sensitive to matters of justice, even if they don’t, say, call themselves feminists or agree with the LGBTQ+ and BLM movements. They are aware of their privilege. They are aware of the underprivileged. For the most part, they’re still politically, morally, and religiously conservative or moderate.

They sound like humans with nuanced thinking, not sound bytes of conservative group think.

The latter (with notable exceptions) are not sensitive to matters of justice. They proudly label themselves anti-feminist. They freak out about transgender people using bathrooms of their choice, and gay persons in monogamous, consensual relationships, while eagerly forgiving a thrice-married owner of strip clubs who openly brags about sexually assaulting women and waltzing into women’s dressing rooms unannounced. They don’t believe in racism and sexism. They can’t find room in their ideology to support both police officers and victims of police violence. They pronounce judgment on those with differing political or religious views, especially those of Catholics, Democrats, and the catch-all label of “liberals.”

They sound like sound bytes of conservative group think. (Liberal group think is a thing, too, equally annoying and flat, but I’m only “friends” with one or two actual flaming liberals.)

My Facebook feed is an interesting place because of this divide. I’ll scroll past a video of fluffy puppies to a passionate plea against sexual abuse to a sexist joke against women officers to a long comment thread on why “black lives matter” just means “black lives matter too” to a meme implying all blacks have the same opportunities whites do, so grow up, black people, and stop deceiving us about racism. When I reach the post taking women to task for complaining about men’s locker room talk (by a woman), I quit Facebook and drown my sorrow in Twitter.

I don’t think this divide comes from the well-traveled, more-experienced college graduates being smarter or better than those who didn’t go to college and worked a local job in all-white conservative towns. And I don’t think the act itself of going or not going to college makes the difference. I know college graduates just as narrowminded as an uneducated country bumpkin, and I know thoughtful, intelligent small-town high school graduates.

The difference comes from seeing people. And leaving an insular group for a more diverse one forces you to look at lots and lots of different people.

Who do you see in a white, straight, evangelical, conservative circle? White, straight, evangelical, conservative people. You don’t have to watch your jokes lest you offend the resident feminist/atheist/gay friend. You can rant rant rant without fear of anyone saying, “Hey, wait. I actually believe that, and you’re mischaracterizing my position.” You can post memes denying the reality of racism, sexism, and homophobia and get thirty likes within the hour.

You aren’t forced to think again, dialogue, and cross bridges. It doesn’t occur to you that reasonable people would think otherwise than you and your posse, because you’ve never met them. You only know gays, evolutionists, and Catholics from out-of-control online debates, a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, and CARM.org.

But when you step outside of that closed circle — maybe to attend college, or move, or something similar — you find reasonable, articulate, lovable people behind the strawman arguments. You are forced to see them, as people, not as agendas or ideologies.

Even if the experience isn’t as diverse as attending UCLA, or even if you stay put in your town, just seeing one real human as a real human can shatter your group think — especially if you see them all day, every day for four years straight.

My sophomore year, I am on record saying, in front of a half-Catholic class, that stigmata could not be a sign from God because Catholics are not Christians.

Two more years of reading the words of Catholics themselves, befriending Catholics over music, books, and the pursuit of truth, and seeing the incredible life of faith my Catholic professors and friends lived, I married a Catholic in front of a half-Catholic wedding party, and am willing to take down any ignoramus who thinks Catholicism is a non-Christian cult.

And this shattering works both ways. Having lived most of my life in an insular, white, straight, conservative Christian community, I’ve been forced to see that community as people too — not as a nebulous dark force of patriarchy and oppression. Of course, I see their faults more readily (because I suffered from and committed those same faults), but I also see their intentions, their desires, and their way of thinking.

I know, for instance, that most of them have never experienced life outside the white, straight, conservative Christian community. And I believe that given exposure to articulate, thoughtful, calm people of different persuasions, many would see their neighbor, and change.

That seeing and experiencing is what changes hearts — not a straight shot of apologetics.

p.s. What to do when you find yourself in the awkward position of “resident egalitarian”

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10 thoughts on “The Importance of Seeing People

  1. Abigail

    Thanks so much for writing this. This is well-put and insightful, and put into words many feelings that I’m not sure how to express. One thing I would add is that reading is a powerful means of seeing people even when you are rooted in one place and aren’t getting to know a diverse group of friends. Reading real people’s stories, whether it’s on a blog or in a 1800s memoir, changes the way you view the world.

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  2. heather

    LOL at fleeing Facebook to find solace on Twitter. I do that a lot. I banned myself from Facebook after the second debate when I found my sister in law and my exhusband talking about how debates aren’t fair to Trump because Fox News wasn’t moderating. I fled to Twitter where I could feel not quite so hopeless.

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  3. Justine

    All your recent posts have inspired me to think, and made me want to comment and write posts on my own blog. However my computer is in the shop and I no longer have internet at home, so I have been reading on my phone at work. Not a good time for commenting or blogging.
    I heartily agree with this post. Seeing people is SO important. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with them, but we do need to see their perspective and value them as human beings. I think something that ties in with this is listening to people and hearing what they have to say rather than assuming we know what they think.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Yes to everything you just said!! I thought, by the way, that by listening I would feel obligated to change my mind on everything, but I’ve found that by learning to listen and have an open mind, I’ve been able to feel comfortable holding my own convictions.

      And not assuming — so, so important.

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      • Justine

        And thanks to you, while I don’t have any intention of letting go of my convictions, I have been inspired to borrow a copy of the Catholic Catechism from my boss. I want to be able to understand the Catholic position and also make sure I believe what I believe because it’s right, not because it’s what I was taught. Also I think if people are unwilling to see and listen to others it makes it seem like they aren’t secure enough about what they believe. It’s like people are afraid that they will have to change if they learn about others. But isn’t that almost the best reason to learn new things? Like isn’t it better to go through the difficult process of change now than stay stuck and scared in something wrong? Does that make sense or am I rambling here?

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      • Bailey Steger

        Good for you! I haven’t actually read the catechism, even though it’s sitting on my shelf next to the Westminster catechism.

        And I totally feel the same! If you’re so interested in truth, why would you be closedminded? Why not investigate everything to see if it’s true or not, and then yes, go through the hard process of change before you get stuck in your comfort zone?

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  4. Mary

    “The difference comes from seeing people. And leaving an insular group for a more diverse one forces you to look at lots and lots of different people.”

    Fantastic post, Bailey. This reminds me a lot of my experiences this summer, interning and swing dancing in Ann Arbor (the most liberal city in Michigan, by some accounts). It’s completely accurate that I was far more motivated to question my conservative presuppositions when I was regularly hanging out with (for starters) a gay man and a transgender woman who became my favorite dance partners, a liberal Catholic, a probably-pagan Renaissance enthusiast, and a guy who spent a lot of time in those hippie communes everyone makes fun of and yet gave the best hugs I’ve ever had. The more deeply I befriended them, the more I came to realize that not only did many of their political ideas make sense, they also had deeply personal reasons for holding the beliefs they did. I guess what I’m trying to say is that after that experience, I no longer feel like I can begrudge anyone their beliefs. We’ve all had such unique experiences that drive us to think the way we do.

    So yes, I agree with you that diversity of community is a critical first step to openness in belief. Something I’d love to see you address in the future is the difference between “group think” and “conviction.” I’ve often struggled with how to hold convictions in a way that both avoids just following the crowd, and expresses love to those who may disagree with me.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Oo, good question. I feel like I recognize the difference between group think and conviction, but I can’t put it into words yet.

      Your summer sounds fascinating and enlightening, to say the least!!! You’re great at seeing people. :)

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