Earlier this week I had the opportunity to speak informally at length with several college-aged young adults. Most were at least a decade or so younger than me, and it was interesting to compare how a younger generation’s perspective was both different and similar to that of my own. We covered a wide variety of subjects in a relatively short period of time, but one particularly interesting discussion grabbed my attention. To some extent, it might as well have sufficed for the main idea of every related topic we covered. Many were within a few semesters of graduation, and starting to contemplate what life after college would have in store for them.
While discussing the societal flaws in gender roles and gender distinctions, a male student spoke with deep concern regarding the limitations of the liberal bubble which he currently inhabited. He had learned to feel very comfortable in a place where everyone more or less thought as he did, cultural policing was kept to a minimum, and where he was free to openly display parts of himself without fear of censure. Yet, he also knew that he was a dweller in an extremely tiny universe whose freedoms ended within a few steps of campus. Adjusting to the greater world after having been immersed in a place much more permissive and encouraging was not a comforting thought to him. Moreover, he also wondered whether what he had learned would even be applicative to the world beyond the gates of academia.
To be sure, many colleges and universities provide a relatively sheltered environment where experimentation and searching for identity are encouraged. Many students, myself included, explored matters of personal identity that had often been forcibly repressed or submerged. And, as is often true, once I graduated and entered the so-called world of Adulthood™, I put those ways behind me. I have, however, often wondered if whether being an “adult” implied an obligation to retreat back into the universal closet in which we all live, living in constant fear that others will be unrestrained to out us or other us.
The student I mentioned above was mulling over what it would be like to live in a world where there were not co-ed restrooms, protests, frequent references made to gender studies and queer theory, compost heaps, ethical consumerism, petition signing, and a near uniformity in ideological identification. I understand his reservations well. If I could inhabit this world, there are any number of things about myself I would openly reveal, knowing I would be unlikely to make someone else uncomfortable. Being mocked or misunderstood for any reason is to know human cruelty. And, like him, I also know that the good work I seek to do can never be accomplished within a sheltered environment, only when I enter spaces where the behavior of others cannot be easily predicted or controlled.
A female student asked me why I spoke openly and frequently about some of the identities I claim for myself, Feminist being the most notable, followed closely by Quaker. Her exact question was, “Why do you keep advertising yourself?” My response to her was that it was a proactive gesture I had learned to adopt long ago, largely to prevent others from jumping to conclusions without first knowing the facts. What a wonderful day it will be when we all don’t have to add caveats to what we say or who we are without someone else making an assumption that is entirely off base. Whenever anyone feels a compulsion to say, “I’m not a Feminist, but…”, “I’m not religious, but…”, or the ever-popular “I’m not racist, but…” herein lies proof of our compulsion to distance ourselves from potential hurt stemming from minimal information.
I pause here to note that was not born into the same world as most of these students. Though I often take solace in the fact that that my upbringing could have been far more conservative and restrictive than it was, I was nonetheless raised by two parents whose working-class Southern WASP inclination produced in me a very different perspective. As is common for many, from a very young age, I knew I would have to leave the region of my birth and settle elsewhere to ever find true community. Having done so, I am certainly thankful for the opportunity, but I know I will always feel like an outsider in some ways.
I applaud the existence of restrooms not restricted to sex or gender, but I still feel uneasy if a woman enters the stall next to me. I believe in gender equality, but I know I ought to carefully consider my audience and volume at which I speak. In certain circumstances, I have found unexpected enemies and unexpected allies. Sometimes women I speak to are the most critical of Feminism and men the most supportive. I am a follower of Jesus, but I have a well-rehearsed litany of about fifteen different tried-and-true apologetic statements designed to put others at ease (and to not be treated differently, as well).
I notice often how when we encounter someone different from us, someone who claims an identity easily inclined to provoke an emotional response, our awkwardness in their company leads us in one of two paths. The first is prejudicial, where we are violently opposed and passionately offended. The second is also born of discomfort, but takes the form of people who seek tolerance and understanding but are nonetheless uncomfortable. Theirs is the path of overcompensation, and usually is characterized by people who are overly and unnecessarily helpful, understanding, and eager to make one feel included and a part. The second is, of course, much preferred to the first; it’s still worth noting that a state of personal ill-ease is present in both scenarios.
It has been said many times before that true learning and understanding does not arrive without a degree of anxiety also present. But it seems as though the anxiety can be both helpful and unhelpful, depending on its form. I remember reading once that there are two types of stress, Eustress, which motives us and keeps us moving forward, and Distress, which robs us of energy and health. One usually thinks of these things as mutually exclusive, but they may not be. The degree and the intensity of each may depend on the individual and the situation. Everyone has a particular threshold for conflict. Some say that not all conflict is destructive, but how easy it is for conflict to spiral out of control. Some may need the security of a liberal bubble and some may wish to practice their conflict resolution skills on a daily basis. As much as I wish that what I learned in safe spaces could be spread far and wide, I know also that resistance is likely to be extreme in some corners.
Being open and honest with the outside world is a revolutionary gesture, but some of us may not be revolutionaries. Even now, in my private life, there is much I keep to myself and a few trusted friends because the potential pain of public knowledge is too much. In this context, I am referring to realities about myself that in liberal circles would cause no one to bat so much as an eyelash, but would be borderline scandalous to those who hold conservative beliefs.
It’s tough to be a solitary activist in any form. I would often feel more comfortable sitting at a segregated lunch counter with several other people than as Rosa Parks, one person out of many hostile voices. To some extent, I have taken both roles before, but the concept of strength in numbers is enough to steel the resolve of many otherwise disinclined to act. It seems that in this day and age, we are inclined far less towards group solidarity and more towards individual rebellion. The irony of this phenomenon is that that we’re all individually rebelling to some degree, but we know not of the similar struggle of our neighbor. I long for a day where we’ll put aside the possibility for individual loss in place of the promise of communal gain. We have become masters of risk-averse thinking, which while it provides no losses, it also provides no gains.
Until we do this, the liberal bubble may only provide a short respite from the rest of the world. We often look back on our salad days as an all-too-brief reprieve from the numbing boredom and frantic pace of adulthood. We’d eagerly return to it if we could. Ideally, we would view it much differently, as the point at which our conscience and perspective was seasoned and formed. We would see it with nostalgia, the same way we reflect fondly upon a love affair or the beginning of a successful project. Progressives have a habit of creating safe havens, but precious few of these ideas and concepts trickle out beyond these borders. Each of us could address this problem in our own way, but to do so requires us to take note that everyone’s contribution is different and based on different factors. We seem to think quite often times that everyone is entitled to his or her own way of solving a problem, provided it agrees with ours.