As we push further into this era of ultra-divisiveness, where any given topic—Brett Kavanaugh’s newly won Supreme Court seat, “zero tolerance” immigration law, gun control, President Trump’s latest tweet—threatens to burst us all asunder, I find myself haunted by high school—the logical result, I suppose, of living in a world deranged by ego, idiocy, bigotry, and fear.
As far as metaphorical wellsprings go, there’s basically high school or Nazi Germany.
Okay so, here goes.
In tenth grade, I signed up to argue pro-life for Social Studies debate.
I had just transferred to a new school—the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts—in the middle of the school year. Somehow, it failed to occur to me that publicly defending an emblematic conservative cause during my first week at a free-wheeling arts school was a bad idea. I assumed everyone would just know—by virtue of what? My Urban Outfitters cardigan?— I wasn’t pro-life in real life.
Further complicating matters, I had partnered with Ashley Rook. At any other school, Ashley—a lifelong Girl Scout and devout Mormon who modeled her fashion choices after Cher in Clueless—might have flown under the radar. At LACHSA, she was a full-blown pariah.
But I had no clue about her social status. I was new, scared, and Ashley—a warm face in a sea of cool kids—was a balm to my goose-pimpled soul. When she asked if I’d like to be her debate partner, I said yes.
For the next two weeks, we immersed ourselves in research. We collected data about heartbeats, conception, and consciousness, and compiled quotes from philosophers, priests, and women with regrets. We carefully cut out photos of bloody embryos and pasted them to foam core with “Disappearing Purple” glue sticks. By the time debate day rolled around, we felt prepared and confident—not bad for a couple kids who in no way bought what they were selling.
Facing a class of 20 to 25 students, with our facts and fetuses propped behind us like a shield, we presented our case. Halfway through our first notecard the jeering began. Heckles, scoffs, gasps of dismay.
One girl climbed into the lap of a friend, needing to be stroked and held. Other students perched on chair-backs like gargoyles poised to spit. It’s worth noting I have zero memory of the kids we actually “debated”—only our audience, a gang of glaring faces seared into my brain. It was disorienting.
Despite harboring the exact same political views as my class, I found myself transformed into a living effigy—a dummy in a baby tee.
I watched their faces—inflated by righteousness, puffed with power—and thought: you’re not upset. You’re enjoying this. (With their get-out-of-jail-free card to gang up on a dork and the new girl—who wouldn’t?)
For the next 40 minutes, I entered a sort of fugue state, during which I stopped defending pro-life as an intellectual exercise, and began defending it in earnest. My voice trembled. I pointed to Xeroxed fetuses with actual tears in my eyes. I was a believer. Because this wasn’t about pro-life versus pro-choice. Not anymore.
This was about me versus them.
We have crossed a similar threshold in this country. We have exited the realm of debate, in which ideas are pitted against ideas, into an amygdala delirium.
Here, people and ideas are fused, and citizens pitted against citizens. It’s a phenomenon dramatically stoked by our President: Trump doesn’t attack a point of view—his ignorance precludes him—he attacks the person. When, for example, he calls the media, “horrible, horrendous people,” he’s not critiquing an institution. He’s dehumanizing individuals.
We must, as much as possible, resist the urge to follow suit—to conflate people with their politics and reject them wholesale. When a video of Kavanaugh’s uncomfortable-looking wife flies around—why speculate whether or not she’s abused? Not only do we abandon the real crisis—the legitimacy of his post—we risk alienating complete strangers, people who may, for better or worse, see themselves in the Kavanaughs.
When we mock the Kavanaugh’s marriage, and mercilessly interpret their “body language,” we unknowingly disparage couples who may express themselves similarly—couples we don’t know. And nothing alienates more swiftly than ridicule—I experienced it first hand. Ridicule led me to earnestly defend—however briefly—a position I’d formally rejected. Imagine the effect if I’d started out taking that position?
If I’d been undecided?
I’m not saying I practice what I preach. I am the caustic Queen. The jester of jibes. I speak not of the pompitous of love. But maybe that’s why this high school debate episode haunts me. Maybe I know, on some level, for every cup of water I splash on this fire, I’m adding another two buckets of fuel.