A couple weeks ago I wrote an article about why I moved home to Tulsa, OK, and why I stayed. It appears to have resonated with a lot of folks in “flyover country” who have discovered both the beauty and the challenges of fighting for the places they call home.
For many of us, one of those challenges is constantly being in the minority, both politically and philosophically, which can feel a lot like parachuting into enemy territory, only to discover that the logistics officer forgot to send supplies.
But you can learn a lot by being in the minority. It’s an experience I recommend to everyone.
As a woman with a technical job in the 90’s, all I had to do was show up at work to be the only female in the room. As it turns out, it was good training for the rest of my life. Twenty years later, I’m surprised at how often I continue to be the only woman at the table. Add to that being a liberal and a feminist and an urbanist in the reddest state in the union, and I can say with confidence that I have some experience at being outnumbered.
In a weird way, it’s a good thing.
When you don’t share the preconceptions of the majority group, you notice things. Instead of making assumptions, you ask more questions. You recognize habits of culture for what they often are: not always a rational decision, but often a simple custom, passed down from generation to generation. At the same time, a deeper understanding of place and culture reveals the wisdom in some of the “dumb” ideas that a cursory consideration would fail to appreciate.
Cue the Christina Aguilera song: Makes me work a little bit harder, It makes me that much wiser, So thanks for making me a fighter.
Being in the minority means having to develop better arguments. You can’t bask in the comfort of the chorus. When you have to sing solo in front of a critical congregation, you have to prepare more. You have to be smarter. You have to communicate better.
In doing so, you contribute to a higher quality of debate.
You quickly realize that spouting off half-baked ideas is not enough. You need knowledge and facts. You need to understand your audience and their point of view. You need to think about language carefully, and figure out how to be heard. You need to question your biases and assumptions, because if you don’t, someone else will.
I’m the first to admit that I love preaching to the choir. Such joyful noise! The warm intellectual embrace, the satisfying boost to the ego! The pleasure of feeling loved and smart when everyone in the room nods in agreement and smiles their benediction. Woo-hoo! Go us!
But preaching to the choir is an intellectually lazy habit. And where’s the challenge in that?
Getting used to small wins
A far more satisfying feeling occurs when you watch someone who disagrees with you furrow their brow in concentration as they consider a new idea. Or when you can make your opponent laugh, which is its own form of collaboration and connection. Often this doesn’t change the outcome, but maybe you rotated a few mental wheels a couple revolutions in a new direction. Perhaps you planted a seed.
Sometimes, that’s all you get. When you’re in the minority, success is measured in inches. It’s not for the faint of heart. You have to be able to care and fight and lose, and somehow summon the hope to continue caring and fighting and losing, over and over again. Until, eventually, maybe you win, just a little bit.
But you’ll never win if you don’t respect the people who disagree with you.
Here’s the hard part
All too often, you hear liberals in “blue” bubbles stereotype conservatives as ignorant or mean-spirited, while conservatives in “red” bubbles stereotype liberals as hopelessly impractical hippies and communists. But when you actually live outside your own bubble, you know it’s not that simple.
If you’ve never lived in a place like Oklahoma, it’s easy to stereotype us as a bunch of uneducated hicks. (When Okie liberals get together and drink, we often agree with you.) Living here, it’s a lot more nuanced. When your neighbors and co-workers espouse opinions to which you’re diametrically opposed, it makes you think.
But you don’t immediately think “those people are idiots.” Instead, you have to put an individual’s political stances in context with the human being you know them to be. And this is only possible when you know people in more than one realm. When you can see them as intelligent co-workers and loving parents. Or that guy who restores classic cars, or makes guitars by hand. Or the person who brings you soup when you’re sick, or sits with you when a loved one is dying.
Oklahoma gets a bad rap in the national media, and often we deserve it. But it’s a fact that if your car breaks down, a minimum of six total strangers will stop to help you regardless of your race, religion, personal income, or sexual orientation.
It’s easy to caricature people you don’t know or understand, and it can be oh-so-satisfying in a superficial way. It’s much more difficult to accept that people are multidimensional, and what you know of one dimension may not represent the entire human being.
Food for thought
If you’ve ever made a redneck joke, I’ve probably laughed at it. But here are some generalizations of my own: As a red state liberal, I can say with confidence that conservatives are funny and smart and kind. They will help you during a crisis. They run businesses and care about their employees. They take care of us in the hospital, serve in the military, fix our cars, remodel our homes, and make sure the electricity is restored quickly after an ice storm. They are doctors and lawyers and community leaders. Perhaps best of all, they know how to hunt and fish and smoke meat and make venison sausage, and are always happy to share. They will say things that make my liberal hair catch on fire, and just when I’m ready to issue a sweeping condemnation, they turn around and exhibit incredible thoughtfulness, compassion and kindness.
Not everyone, and not every time, but you get the idea. Humans are complex and contradictory and we’re all a bunch of hypocrites, but we’re also beautiful and capable of incredible acts of generosity and love—regardless of political affiliation—which is something we too often forget in our haste to simplify the arguments and win the fight.
The beauty of "purple" places
The older I get, the more I reject overly simplistic statements, even when they come from my own tribe, and even when I generally agree with them. I want more. I want to hear a more nuanced view that challenges or adds to my knowledge and understanding of the world.
Tulsa, my hometown, is itself a surprisingly “purple” place, where you quickly realize that liberal and conservative concepts exist on a continuum, and they can change depending upon the topic. I’m often surprised when I try to guess someone’s position in advance. Let’s just say there are a lot of passionate people here, who hold a wide variety of opinions. We can be a rowdy, hard-headed and frustrating bunch. But I’m convinced that this diversity of opinions and experiences makes us stronger, because when you finally reach consensus, you know that your ideas have been put to the test and passed.
I think this is the sort of debate that’s missing when we self-segregate into like-minded tribes. When we only hear opinions that agree with our own. When we only hang with people who are exactly like us.
This is why I can recommend the experience of being a liberal in the reddest state in the union. It’s not always pretty—sometimes I want to bang my head against concrete—but in many ways, it’s been a gift. It keeps me on my toes and forces me search for commonality when my initial instinct might be to condemn.
For every liberal kid who ever high-tailed it for blue-state bliss—and the warm feeling you get from having your thoughts validated by like-minded people—you might be missing out. Get out there and mix it up a bit. Challenge yourself. Be surprised. And who knows? Maybe you’ll discover that the most radical thing you can possibly do is to move back home and take a stand.