I’m a small blue dot living in a blood-red corner of a red state, so I’ve grown accustomed to hearing right wing talking points. I don’t like them, but they surface as regularly in my southwest Florida town as white egrets on the highway and dolphins in the Gulf. Talking points at the grocery store, the gas station, the movie theater, and my son’s school—they’re inescapable. “Scandinavians can’t own their own homes,” an elderly veteran told me at a local trampoline house last week. “Socialists have no dreams.”
As a literature professor, I tend to shy away from overtly political conversation. I can smell something fishy in what many of my neighbors say, but I can’t always explain myself. I know what it takes to be qualified to speak knowledgeably about domestic and foreign affairs. I was raised in a suburb of Washington, DC, by parents who wrote ten books about politics and read seven newspapers every day.
This election has pulled me into the game.
“I’ve been to Denmark twice, and you can own multiple homes there if you like. Danes have big dreams, from what I could tell,” I told the veteran. “They just don’t seem to come at anyone else’s expense.”
He didn’t seem to want to talk much after that, even though my son was soaring through the air with his granddaughter just ten feet away.
Today, I heard the same talking points from two different sources.
“Have you heard about the protests on college campuses?” a local friend asked me this morning. “What a bunch of crybabies! I wasn’t thrilled when Obama got elected—twice!—but you never saw me protest. Apparently, these kids are saying that they’re too upset to take their exams. These must be the same kids that got trophies their whole lives just for showing up. And the colleges are accommodating this nonsense!”
All of my northern, Yankee, city-slicker friends are shocked, depressed, and contemplating medication these days, so I had to adjust my mindset. I’ve been in comforting mode since the election, but this seemed to call for a different response.
I asked my local friend if she ever listened to NPR, one of my favorite news sources.
“You might feel different about those college students if you gave it a listen,” I said. I could tell from her facial expression that she probably won’t.
Four hours later, I heard the same exact wording from three middle-aged strangers in white robes. These weren’t Klan sheets, just ordinary waffle-weave at our local day spa. I was trying to relax in the “quiet room,” when the words “College students,” “crybabies,” and “trophies for showing up” pierced my struggle for some post-election Zen. The source? Someone’s church minister. I think it’s pretty clear where he’s getting his information, and it’s not NPR, either.
Here’s what I wish I had said to strangers and friends alike on this subject.
I’ve spent two decades with college students, and I care deeply about their lives, their concerns, and the world they are inheriting.
My courses’ themes have ranged from contemporary literature to film adaptation to memoir, but my ultimate goals never vary. I care most about helping my students develop their critical thinking skills and their empathy. Literature is great for both. No one can dismiss the damages caused by a vestigial caste system in India after living vicariously through the novel The White Tiger. In Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi—a book that’s come back to haunt my thoughts post-election—the dangers of trying to foist one’s monolithic dreams on a diverse nation emerge in gorgeous, terrifying detail.
Every work of literature is different, yet they all function to widen the perspective and deepen the soul in this way. Of all the chilling things that have been reported about President-elect Trump, the worst for me was his alleged indifference to books. Who needs to grow in empathy and critical thinking skills more than the person who enters the Oval Office?
So what do I see in large groups of college students reeling from this presidential election, and taking to the quad to voice their dismay? I don’t see entitlement; I see critical thinking skills and empathy aplenty. As a college professor, I see some cause for real rejoicing. Makes me wish I had some shiny trophies to distribute.
We just elected a man who was caught on video boasting about using his celebrity to sexually assault women. Who just settled a lawsuit for twenty-five million dollars involving the defrauding of college students and their families. Who evaded taxes for decades and had the audacity to brag about it during a presidential debate. Who avoided the Vietnam War draft for a foot injury but can’t remember which foot was injured. A man who has called all Mexicans rapists, and can’t differentiate between Muslims and radical Islamic terrorists. Who wants to repeal the Dream Act, and has been sanctioned for discriminating against minorities in his role as a landlord. A man who is populating his Cabinet with an assortment of people who have been publicly denounced for their racism and anti-Semitism, and scoff at the science behind climate change.
The Klan held a victory rally in Tennessee when Trump won the White House.
It’s not a sign of poor character for these college student protesters to be crying. On the contrary, it shows they have the critical thinking skills to differentiate between presidential timber and whatever orange stuff comprises President-elect Trump. I see a lot of white male Christian students in these protests who have nothing to lose personally under a Trump presidency, except that they value women and minorities and religious freedom and the environment. They’re demonstrating their capacity for empathy.
For me to survive and thrive in a county that voted for Trump at a rate of 61% (to Clinton’s 35%), I must empathize with my neighbors. I’m neither a veteran nor a Christian, but I have genuine respect for people who have put their lives on the line for our country, and I see great wisdom and moral truth in the New Testament. How veterans and Christians could champion President-elect Trump continues to baffle me. I’m not a businesswoman, but I can’t see how anyone could look at Trump’s business record and want his advice on anything more complex than a lemonade stand.
In short, I haven’t done a very good job of empathizing with my neighbors at all.
I blame the talking points.
In my darkest moments, I have wondered if Denmark might be a better choice for me. I believe in science. I think we shouldn’t deplete our natural resources. I like the idea of bike paths the same size as car lanes. I believe in respect, and empathy, and critical thinking skills. Those things seem to thrive in Scandinavia more than they do here at home in my red corner of a red state.
I will stay, mostly for my family and for my amazing, brave students. I’d like to explain to the parents of college-aged students that questioning authority is part of every worthwhile curriculum. Yes, this will ruin some holiday dinners, but your children will grow stronger and wiser. So will you, if you remain open. Your children may grow beyond you, and that’s cause for celebration, not ridicule.
If America’s college student protesters are going to get assaulted with hateful rhetoric—not to mention hate crimes—when they find the courage to stand up and say, “This smells fishy to us,” they’re going to need someone to stand with them.
Even literature professors who shy away from political conversations.