Finding a Place

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.

It’s one of life’s perpetual questions: “where do I fit in?” Arguably, every major life decision we make plays a role in helping us answer this question. For me, I have yet to find the answer on many levels. Politically, I have taken many journeys, read many essays, and heard many a speaker or activist attempt to pull me one way or another.

When I arrived at Swarthmore, it was September 2012. Fervor for the election was peaking. I remember being vocal about my distrust and dislike of the Obama administration, and finding that my opinion was not well-received by my fellow students. I was hardly surprised that my conservatism offended my peers. The bases upon which their criticisms were founded were, however, shocking and problematic. I was called a “self-loather” for being gay and (at the time) considerably right-wing. “Backwards,” due to my origin in South suburban Chicago and Northwest Indiana. I was confronted with a serious assault on the beliefs that had structured my worldview since the beginning of memory. My ideological assailants’ tactics were also exceptionally crafty. Often, the condescending “you just haven’t thought about ‘x’ or heard of ‘y’ principle, if you had, you wouldn’t be so conservative.”

While the remarks obviously stung, they did prompt some introspection. Why did I believe what I did, and how did I arrive at those beliefs? My parents were, indeed, upper-middle class, Catholic, and ardent fans of the Fox News primetime lineup. I was horrified to think that I had picked up my political views without having thoroughly examined them.

My experiences during my tenure at Swarthmore, both intellectual and social, have certainly pushed me further left than most other members of the Swarthmore Conservative Society (SCS). When I called Saira Blair (the ultraconservative 18-year-old who was elected to the West Virginia state legislature) “the girl no one wants to take to the prom” due to her opposition to social policies that would allow for behaviors commonly conceived as “fun,” I was met with groans and rebuttals. On a serious note, I’ve come to understand and appreciate social justice and environmental causes. While I might never stop critiquing the poor fashion choices of those who espouse these beliefs, I have to come to harbor respect for the beliefs of those who, when stepping foot on this campus those years ago, would have forced me to shut down and tune out when they spoke.

However, a course with Mark Kuperberg couldn’t sell me on the legitimacy of Keynesian economics. I’m always going to laugh at jokes couched in multiple levels of insensitivity, whether that be sexual or cultural. And I’m always going to be annoyed when someone, as many Swatties like to do, takes on a “oh you just don’t agree because you don’t understand- let me talk down to you” attitude.

As a result, I’ve found myself in a bit of an odd space. A Cato Institute event this past summer left me even more removed from my ideological comfort zone. I had always assumed that “libertarian” was the proper term to describe my pattern of beliefs. Socially more to the left, economically more to the right. I found that, in fact, many of the other young persons at the conference were not focused on typical issues. Instead, they were debating the legitimacy of statism, or the belief that the state has central control over social and economic affairs.

Suddenly, I wasn’t being forced to defend my position on standard, yet contentious, issues like abortion and gay marriage. I was forced to defend why I believed government should exist at all. So many of my fellow attendees were anti-statist, calling for some form of market-driven anarchy. If that was the cutting edge of libertarianism, it certainly wasn’t for me.

The original question has arisen once again. “Where do I fit in?” I’ve spent the last several weeks trying to reason through this question. For a long time, I had filled in my “political views” box on Facebook in with “disgruntled.” This could be the most accurate descriptor for my present ideology. While it would certainly be easy to fall in step with the collective groupthink that too often occurs on this campus, I feel that healthy doses of vitriol, skepticism and humor are essential to retaining one’s sanity when evaluating politics.

Even among other members of SCS, I’m very aware that I don’t quite fit. While my jokes about Michelle Obama and Madonna sharing a personal trainer might incite a laugh, I sit far to the left of most, if not all of the members of the Society. And that’s okay. What has mattered more to me is not the precise lineup of my political views with theirs, but their willingness to accept humor into the realm of political discussion. And no, I’m not talking “political humor” in Bill-Maher’s Sarah-Palin-has-a-retard-baby way. I’m talking about not taking contention in politics too seriously. I’m talking about laughing off the Swat 7 videos that stereotyped the composition of the “group of conservatives” at Swarthmore. Or laughing off the unadulterated gloating and finger-pointing that occurred after the 2012 election. Collectively. I have continued attending meetings of SCS not because I fall in step with the beliefs the majority of the membership espouse, but rather due to their respect for differences in opinion. We evaluate our open/closed-minded campus in the same way- with a healthy dose of sarcasm that often sees meetings end with side-splitting laughter.

“Laughing off” issues is not a strength of our campus community. While there are certainly many issues to be genuinely upset about, most others are regarded with a level of furied seriousness that creates a thoroughly unhealthy environment for debate. I admit to actively shutting myself down when going through my Facebook news feed, or sitting with a group of peers who are discussing a contentious topic. I’m simply too afraid of the backlash to speak up. This is not to assert that my opinion is being silenced per se, but rather, that representing causes angrily, without room for reason or healthy argumentation, leaves little room for discussion or understanding of those ideas to those outside the most fervent advocates for said cause.

This largely proves irrelevant– my time at Swarthmore has concluded. In a few short weeks, I’ll be in the “real world,” out of the “Swat bubble” and attempting to navigate the horrors of life as a “young professional.” However, the humorous outlook on life, and the ability to not take myself or my surroundings too seriously are invaluable tools that I will continue to employ. While I never “fit in” at Swarthmore in the conventional sense, I believe that the journey I took to find a place provided more validation than any social niche.

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