Columns

Sundlee ’16: A house divided

By
Opinions Editor
Wednesday, September 16, 2015

At the beginning of this summer, I found myself in a very peculiar situation. I was to be sharing a house with a band of men in Georgetown. But these men were not just any men — these were bona fide, socially conservative, entitlement-hating, Bush-apologist, Republican men. I noted with a wrinkled nose that even the house was salmon-colored. Having spent most of my last three years within the Van Wickle Gates in the embrace of groups like Feminists at Brown, I predicted the experience would be a rude adjustment. 

This was Washington, D.C., so of course politics were the lifeblood of conversation. And with Comcast as our flaky Internet provider, there was little to do but bicker. Within hours of moving in, I found myself shouting about Black Lives Matter, using beer cans to demonstrate an elaborate metaphor about equal opportunity on our rotting coffee table.

Clearly I knew how to make friends.

But as time passed, the quality of our conversations rose. My entrenched beliefs were challenged like they hadn’t been in years. And I know I introduced them to arguments they rarely considered. The following are my observations from this summer, and ultimately my conclusion that seeking out parties whose beliefs we find displeasing is more important to our future than ever before.

In a way, our house was a curious microcosm where the incentives aligned to produce the best conversation. Being cooped up together forced not only discussions, but also civil discussion. It was absolutely not a safe space, but it was a constructive space. Getting mad and exiting the conversation because of the offensiveness of a comment or view was not an acceptable conclusion, because we had to live with each other. And really, there was nothing else to do anyway — I would take off in a huff, and then see the cable kleptocracy had failed us again and Netflix was still unreachable. Then I would stew, think of a witty rejoinder and come bounding back into the argument. So we would whittle away at an issue until we came to an understanding, or at least the root of the disagreement.

There were times when unsavory comments were made. The night we talked abortion upset me greatly. Indirectly, these men wanted to control what I could do with my own body. But I reluctantly came to recognize that their position came down to cultural difference — not necessarily blind, malicious misogyny, which I had long believed the culprit.

If we traced back our disagreement over abortion, the root was religious faith. Of course there are hypocrisies and anachronisms that lead many of us to regard faith as an untenable basis for policy. Of course it is always our choice whether or not to respect cultural difference. No culture is sacrosanct. All are imperfect and unjust and oppressive in their own special ways, and some do enjoy hegemonic privileges. But recognizing deep cultural influences as an element in political beliefs we find abhorrent is a step towards understanding. For if we cast a critical gaze on our own, we will see that our privileged culture too is flawed, and we cling to it with just as much tenacity. Understanding is a step towards conciliation, and conciliation is essential for progress. 

Addressing views that we may find distasteful — especially social ones — forces us to flex a lot of mental muscles that are under-used in the world of politics. We must be eternally composed and polite. We must go over our own logic with a fine-toothed comb, and then deliver it without condescension or ire. Is that point really consistent with your other ones? Quick, think! What evidence of unequal opportunity can you unearth that resonates with a Vineyard Vines-swaddled American prince? These interactions test you. Do you believe in your cause enough to face a pack of gimlet-eyed FOX News viewers and defend a woman’s right to choose for hours? Time to walk the walk.

This is what we need to see more of at Brown — at least for students interested in policy, social issues, activism or politics. It is of course very important to maintain safe spaces where students can feel comfortable and engage in discourse that won’t traumatize them. We need this to construct whole, confident selves. Using the University as a haven for social idealism and personal development is a beautiful thing. But Brown is also an incubator for tomorrow’s lobbyists, politicians, analysts, diplomats and community leaders. These students need exposure to the ethos of everyday America, the land of insensitive stubbornness beyond our gates and our liberal-elite New England enclaves.

It’s a hard, cold reality that requires preparation in the form of unfailing patience. And patience for social conservatism is at an all-time low in these parts. For idealistic purposes, perhaps this is positive. But for career purposes, and for the purposes of all those seeking peaceful justice on a national policy level, it’s a tragedy.

My blood pressure suffered, but I probably gathered more diplomatic skill this summer than I have gleaned in three years here. I want to see our distinguished school offer as fine of an experience as a bunch of frat boys in a moldy salmon-colored house.

Robyn Sundlee ’16 is concentrating in international relations.

  • Tim

    Great article

  • Greek Alum

    “If we traced back our disagreement over abortion, the root was religious faith.”
    Cool, so these guys never engaged in premarital sex then, right?

  • Good on you

    I give you credit. Most Brownies would have moved out on Day 0.5. Or spent the summer in their room banging away on their iPhone’s Facebook app about how they’d been “victimized” by “oppressors”.