Out of My Comfort Zone: Why I Wrote an Essay that Scares Me a Little

political tribes and the fable of the elephant

By Angela Noel Lawson

February 25, 2018

I’m outside of my comfort zone. I don’t write about politics. My focus on this blog and in my life in general has always been on what brings people together. Politics, in general, seems to do the opposite. However, I read a book, Political Tribes, by Yale professor and bestselling author Amy Chua. And that book brought me to consider some ideas I needed to explore. The result is this essay: “Conceit on the Left? A Liberal’s Point of View” now on Splice Today.

The Woman in the Mirror

Far from seeking to point fingers at a particular group or ideology, my goal is to point only one finger–at myself. By exploring my own experiences, why I think as I do, and allowing my mind to be opened to the hypocrisy resident in my own brain, I hope to invite others to do the same.

Clearly, I don’t know if my words will evoke vitriolic responses from readers. I hope not. But given the nature of politics today, it’s certainly possible. My goal for myself, should this happen, is to remember that the point of my writing isn’t to convince or engage in argument. But rather to foster thoughtfulness.

I want conversation. I want to honor other voices inviting me to greater awareness.

“Conversation is the most important thing in a democracy.” Özlem Cekic from her Ted talk, “Why I have coffee with people who send me hate mail.”

What I don’t want is fear. Fear drives irrational anger. I hope that doesn’t happen here.

Early Reader Feedback

I wrote this essay over the course of several weeks. When I had a good draft I gave it to a few people from different political points of view to read. I wanted to check myself: Was my message clear? Did I inadvertently lay blame? Do the words and tone support the theme? Based on what they know of me, does my authentic voice come through? Because my conservative family is central to my story, I asked for their feedback.

First, my mom’s response, along with pointing out a few grammatical errors, was predictably thoughtful. “I’ve reread your essay several times,” she wrote in reply to my email requesting feedback, “and find it intriguing, enlightening, and true–for everyone. Equal treatment under the law is vital. Unfortunately it seems that the “law” is too often perverted by our prejudices.”

She goes on to say, “You’re so right about that stuff between our ears. There are those who will bristle at your reasoned presentation. But your message will encourage others who really want to curtail the dragon of panic and angst within to work on themselves rather than fighting.” I hope she’s right.

Next, my dad, smart, creative, and a life-long Republican, weighed in on the concept of “tribes” as described in Chua’s book. “I don’t care what tribes people belong to but I do care about your ideas,” he wrote. “Idea differences are worthy of open debate so we can judge which ideas will benefit the greatest number.  I do see a danger if we vote as tribes without reference to philosophies.  A voting bloc closed to persuasion regardless of the merit of arguments is dangerous.”

Moreover, he noted the word “conservative” could be substituted for “liberal” in almost every statement made by Geoffrey R. Stone in his article “Liberal Values.” (I mention Stone’s article in the essay.) This is a key insight in my opinion. Namely, when we really think about it, we’re much closer to agreement than not.

The Elephant

This notion reminds me of the fable about six blind men who encounter an elephant. In the parable, each man constructs in his own mind what the animal is based on the part of the the elephant he touched; trunk, leg, tail, etc. Of course, they fight about it. But the men eventually contrive a way to resolve the disagreement. In the end, the fable points out, we’re all describing a part of the same elephant. It’s truth, just not the whole truth. Thus, it’s best not to assume we know the whole story about anything or anyone based only on the part of the elephant we have direct experience with.

Bye Bye Comfort Zone

Though still tingling with a sense of vulnerability in sharing my essay with the world, these insights buoy me.

When I received word that my essay had been accepted and would be published, I took a deep breath.  Here we go, I thought. Stay present. Listen. Learn.

In short, I hope you read the essay. I hope you’ll consider adding your comments either on the essay itself, or on this post about the essay. No matter what, I hope to invite you beyond your comfort zone. If I can do it, you can too.

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

24 thoughts on “Out of My Comfort Zone: Why I Wrote an Essay that Scares Me a Little”

  1. Yes yes yes and yes! Your dad is wise! The elephant story is the perfect analogy for our political situation- we are all fighting to defend an inaccurate and/or incomplete story! It would seem that there is no such thing as “objective” news any longer. (To be clear, I haven’t read the essay yet – going there now.)

    1. I truly don’t think we’ve maybe ever had objective news. Humans aren’t objective beings. The scientific method is so wonderful because it builds in safeguards to protect the process from us subjective humans interpreting data wrong. And key to that is peer review. (Which, of course, is not news to you. :)) I’d really like to see a journalist say– “Hey, this is my personal view on x. Here’s the info I know on it. But check me, because I could be biased a bit in this way.” Instead of pretending we’re neutral.
      Thank you so much for reading this (and my essay too) I know it’s a LOT of words!

  2. The thoughts of the South Carolina student really resonated with me. I’m going to use your essay as a jumping off point for an axe I want to grind. In 2005 I moved from liberal, wealthy Washington, DC to conservative, middle class, rural Gettysburg, PA. I immediately noticed that the progressives in Gettysburg were way more, well, progressive than those in DC. They were more inclined to practice what they preached. Volunteered more and in general actually came in contact with the people for whom they advocated. The elitism in DC was rampant. Some of my neighbors were openly disdainful of those who lived in suburban and rural environments.

    For the past few days, I’ve watched the luster quickly wear away from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. To me she now seems like an embodiment of the urban upper class. Quick to point out everyone’s faults, but not practicing what she’s been preaching. By using tax payer money to live in her exclusive high end apartment, she’s showing that she’s out of touch with her constituents and the Americans she professes to represent. She’s appears to be yet another politician who used a vacant apartment as her address and built up an image based on water vapor. I’ve never used the word elite to describe anyone except an athlete, but AOC has made me reconsider this. If I seem betrayed, well, yes I am.

    1. This is so interesting to hear (read). I think what you said about DC and Gettysburg is fascinating. Is it possible to be rich and powerful AND identify with normal, everyday people? Warren Buffet is famously not a “rich guy” type of guy. But I think he’s the exception not the rule.
      I don’t know AOC nor have I followed her path to power. Of course, I know of her. But, if what you’re saying is the case, it makes me sad too. It’s inauthentic. And nothing is more disappointing to me.
      Then again, staying true to ourselves is NOT easy. I don’t think I managed it 80% of the time until I hit 35. Now I’m mid-forties and I would say I am either authentic and in line with my values almost all of the time–if I’m off I see it and get back to good. But I wouldn’t have known how to do that at 28. Not an excuse–but definitely a thing.
      I so appreciate your thoughtful points and the ax you needed to grind. You always give me food for thought.

  3. YES Angela. This post is bloody brilliant and very relatable. It applies to the U.K. too (and many, many other countries too, I imagine). It made me think, especially when I read “we talk about poor people, but not TO poor people”. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in left-wing politics (as there is in right-wing). I am left-wing, but I am so very aware of the echo-chamber that surrounds people (whatever their politic persuasion). It’s so very important to question our beliefs and try and look at things from other people’s points of views. It’s like I said to a relative when discussing politics once (who has opposite views to me)- we actually both want the same thing, we just think believe in different ways of achieving it.

    1. You and my dad should have a conversation. That’s exactly what he said–we want the same thing, we just think we should go about getting it in a different way. Of course, there’s plenty to try and figure out on what’s the best way. In my dad’s comment I liked that he said “for the greatest number of people.” Sometimes I forget that. Not every decision made by our leaders can possibly be the perfect decision for me–personally. Sometimes I’m going to get a benefit and sometimes I won’t. To think that everything should always go my way is just sort of dumb. But I am still guilty of that all too often.
      Did you ever see that movie with Ricky Gervais “The Invention of Lying”? Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if people just couldn’t lie. Or if we acted hypocritically our noses would grow or something. If there’s no punishment or accountability for doing something I think we’re just going to keep doing it.
      I don’t know what the answer is for the world in general–except in exercising my voice and my right to vote. But I do know I can try and root it out of myself. Confront my own hypocrisy and refuse to let it “be okay” just because other people do it too. That’s going to be the toughest thing for me I think. But I’m going to try!
      I’m glad the message here translates beyond the US. That book–Political Tribes does talk more globally than just in the US. It’s a good one.

  4. I like your essay. I think I also like the book you’ve responded to. The main points you pull from it I have thought myself, often.

    “How might I help others feel less persecuted?” — This is an interesting question. For me the response is that we ALL feel persecuted, so the question is ARE we or have we (and I mean everyone) just come to identify with some persecution somewhere? It’s easier for many people to face life as part of a “tribe” than it is to step forward and imagine they are unique, that outside of the inescapable aspects of human life, we might actually not BE “like” anyone else unless we choose to be. I don’t even know if I can make sense here. My belief (after teaching 30+ years in Southern California) is that “diversity” is propaganda designed to prevent individuals from questioning and acting as the powerful human beings they might be. It’s easier to see ourselves and others in wide swaths of superficial differences like color and gender. I had a black student in a freshman comp class in which they wrote journals. Early 90s, so on notebooks with ink. He wrote, “You’re not going to believe this, professor, because I’m a black guy, but I like the same music you do. I love hardcore punk.” He went on to explain why and his reasons were a lot like mine. Another black student, a young woman, who got beaten up after class for trying hard in my class (critical thinking) and exhibiting her really impressive live vocabulary. “Why you talkin’ like a white person?” These kids had to fight their “tribe” all the time. Who among the liberals would have recognized WHERE those kids’ oppression actually came from?

    “What if we embraced bewilderment instead of smugness?” I LOVE this. I agree. Bewilderment and curiosity are SO honest.

    I definitely feel this: “I’d left Southern California because I couldn’t compete.” It’s a very competitive and transactional world. I am glad to be back in Colorado in my small town where I’m important to people just because I’m here, I’m friendly, I pay taxes and I love the place.

    1. Wow. I love this comment. Your thoughts are a perfect mini-essay. So much to think about.
      First, I think you’re right about how the “wide swaths of superficial difference” have become a proxy for true, unique identity. I did a little research into “identity politics” not too long ago. The desire to be not an individual, but to be part of a group that’s a different, identified and acknowledged subset is a new thing. It’s almost as if, instead of using the alphabet to form words and then those words to form concepts, we instead can only use those little refrigerator magnets with the words pre-printed and pre-ordained. Sure, we can mix and match them, but the combinations are not nearly as rich.
      Secondly, I LOVE the stories of your students. (Though I don’t love that the young woman suffered at the hands of her peers.) I love that the young man found the connection points and paused to stand in awe of them. I’m troubled by the experience of the young woman you mention. But I think I’ve heard of other examples of kids who could change their stars, but who don’t because it’s too hard to stand out and be different within one’s own community. Good Will Hunting comes to mind. . . Or Akeelah and the Bee. Come to think of it, even breaking from the religious tradition of my own family was a challenge. It took love on both sides to accept we weren’t going to change the other.
      Last, Colorado sounds so lovely. More than once my husband has wistfully looked at the mountains and calculated what it would take to move there. Alas, not for another 8 years until that’s a possibility. But you never know. It truly sounds like a lovely place!

      Thank you for giving me so much more to think about.

  5. What a thoughtful essay.

    I agree with Hayley. I realize this is about the US, but it resonates strongly with how I felt after the Brexit vote. Sometimes it is so hard to understand what the ‘other’ side is thinking. I think London is so cosmopolitan, that people there forget how it is to live in the rest of the UK. I certainly felt like a total country bumpkin when I first moved there…

    P.s. I love the comments from your parents. You come from a whole family of people with wise words. I especially agree with “A voting bloc closed to persuasion regardless of the merit of arguments is dangerous.”

    1. Thanks, Josy. The whole “other” side thing is such a trap for all of us. I was even thinking about it more today about how my “party” thinks about one thing or the other. But I just hate thinking like that!
      Though I wouldn’t wish that strange alien feeling on anyone, it makes sense that so many of us feel it. Even the city-living folk moving out to the country would feel out of sorts, I think.
      And I have to agree about my parent’s comments. Honestly, they both offered really well-thought out feedback and I couldn’t not share it. Their thoughts helped drive home for me the point that even if we think there might be division, there’s less than we think if we just reach out and talk.

  6. Wonderful essay. You are brave, girl! It’s so easy to write people off as the “other,” the other party, the other region, other class, etc. Really, Americans have much more in common than we think, I think. But you’re right–we have to hear each other out to discover those similarities. The last time I visited my dad in Ohio, upon learning that I now live in Maryland, a friend of his said, “oh, I just wish both coasts would drop off the continent.” That’s how dissimilar he felt, as a Midwesterner, to East Coast people and politics. I heard the NPR piece about that European official (you quote above) who would invite to coffee people who’d sent her hate mail. She’s inspiring, as are you, for raising these issues here. We aren’t one in the same as our “tribe”–we are individuals, who require respect as individuals. Well done for striking out on your own here!

    1. Oh wow! That comment from your dad’s friend is worrisome. But, I think you’re right–it’s just that feeling of “otherness.” It’s so different when we can meet people, shake their hands, look them in their eyes and see that they too are human.
      I’m not so naive to think this is the perfect solution, but at least if we could keep a little space open in our minds that the “other” might not be as different as they seem, we’d be a little better off.
      Did you listen to the TED radio hour about Kindness? That’s when I first heard about Ozlem.

      1. I need to listen to that TED talk. The short piece on Ozlem I heard was inspiring. And that she didn’t just meet people out for coffee. She met them in their homes–very courageous, since some had threatened her life! We could all use just a snippet of that kind of courage in our daily lives–like you said, to look a person in the eyes and try to find out what we have in common. Keep up the “think pieces,” I say!

  7. Another great essay Angela – thank you. Having also lived and identified with different points on the political and religion spectrum through the course of my life, I agree that ‘truth’ lies somewhere in the middle. I think where I disagree with you is that we ‘all want the same thing’. While I believe that ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ ideology might share the same or similar goals – strong economy, national security – I do not believe that as individuals we all want the same thing. Because I do not want the same things as anyone who is racist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc. That said, I don’t believe these evils are restricted to one political party or religious group — unfortunately. I have no problem discussing policy and implementation differences with those who think differently but I will not tolerate hatred or injustice. This doesn’t mean I need to attack anyone else, but I will walk away, stop listening, and/or call it what it is – respectfully. As I think I shared once before — I try to speak my truth without attacking another’s. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    1. What a wonderful comment, and I’m glad you pointed that nuance out. I agree, I don’t want the same thing as people bent on hate for hate’s sake. I am operating off of the assumption that most people don’t fall into those extremes–though I do think we all (including me) have work to do to understand all the ways my unconscious bias is at work.
      I also think we shouldn’t just nod our heads or turn them away when people act with hatred or undermine justice. I read an essay on The Good Men Project not long ago by a woman who confronted a fellow patron at a coffee shop who’s made some racist or homophobic remark. She calmly engaged him, shared her views, pointed out what she didn’t like in what he said. Unfortunately, it didn’t result in changing his mind, but at the very least she knows she didn’t let it go. She stood up. And that’s inspiring.
      She did what you do–shared her truth. And I think you’re inspiring too.

      1. Angela, I agree that sometimes we need to engage in conversation but sometimes it is just too exhausting. And sometimes the hatred is more insidious — overt hatred is easy to identify and avoid. Speaking to the systemic issues is much more difficult. I’m a firm believer in the need to continue the conversation – and try to maintain hope that someday it will make a difference.

  8. Amazing article! This got my blood boiling again about stuff in Wisconsin. The new governor’s ready to slash the voucher program to pieces, despite the fact that voucher schools have been consistently out-performing public schools. Rather than ask the simple question “What are the private schools doing that we’re not?” He’s villainized them as tax-dollar pits and is ready to cut them off completely. Ugh, it just…STEP OUTSIDE YOUR SPECIAL INTERESTS!!!!!

    Oh, didn’t I mention our governor had been the head of the state’s public education for years and has ALWAYS hated the voucher program?

    (angry grumble mumble)

    1. That sounds so frustrating! I agree with you–politicians (and all of us) need to zoom out and see the bigger picture. What’s right for the most people? It seems like data doesn’t always help unless it aligns with what we’re already inclined to think. I wish I understood exactly why that is. I am sure it has to do with our brain biases.
      Anything education related really gets to me. Like how teachers have to literally walk off the job to get a decent raise. Why can’t we pay celebrities less and teachers more? Like an entertainment tax or something? (Now I’m grumbling.) 🙂
      Thank you for reading and getting me thinking!

    2. YES, exactly! I could go off on union stuff, but no, no no, I’m not going to because I know they’ve helped, too. Plus you add up all the expenses they have to spend on earning credits to keep their licenses, buying their own supplies….UGH, it’s so frustrating.

  9. Wonderful essay, Angela! I have to admit, I was skeptical about reading this post because I don’t “do” politics anymore. There is so much negativity, so much carelessness, and so many lies that surround polities, that I decided that I had had enough. I do read the “headlines” and watch the news to stay on top of the latest happenings, but I don’t dig in deep. I am wary of what the media decides to report on, so you can find me switching between local news stations to find the most unbiased station. Like you, I was also raised in a very conservative family. And while I still find value in many of my family’s beliefs, I also find them turning a blind eye to certain undesirable traits of their beloved “party”. Same goes for the liberal party. Hearing, seeing, and witnessing the extremism within each party stresses me out, so I choose to not be involved with either. Maybe this is me turning a blind eye within the political world, but life is too short to immerse oneself in something that causes endless frustration. I wish that every person in our country would read your essay. Maybe our political world could become a little less bias.

    1. Thank you for reading it, Erin. I totally get it. I hate the contentiousness. It’s so divisive. You’re smart to create some healthy boundaries. Thus, I feel honored that you would go there to read what I wrote. I’m going to publish it on Medium too. Though I don’t know if that will help more people read it or invite good or bad reactions. It’s a tough topic, but I really think we CAN be more civil if we try and build more bridges instead of tear each other apart.

  10. I identify as a progressive, and I am also wary of tribalism on the left. If for no other reason than it is counterproductive. Trump is the product and promoter of WWF style politics. It doesn’t matter to him if you think he is the greatest or the worst. He will use your demonization to tell his followers, “See they hate me. Therefore, they also hate you.” Treating Trump supporters like racist simpletons is never going to get us to the consensus we need to fight existential threats like climate change, or to rebuilding the commons. By the way, I think you would be welcome at my church. I’m Unitarian Universalist. Blessings on your journey.

    1. Hi Ben,
      Thank you for this excellent comment. It’s interesting you reference the WWE. Amy Chua, in her book, does the same.
      I so appreciate your point of view that treating others with disrespect just because we disagree is not a unifying, or productive position when dealing with such enormous problems.
      Thank you also for the recommendation on the Unitarian Church. I suspect I’ll find myself there someday. (I meant that quite literally, as in actually going to a church—but perhaps metaphorically too.)

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