There’s a funny thing that happens in places like Washington. We’re a little liberal corner of the world, unnoticed by most. I often joke that the national news stops in Oregon. When Colorado legalized pot, the time zones and news cycle made it huge news: The first state to legalize pot! Even now, most news stories seem to focus on how pot legalization is rolling out in Colorado. Hardly anyone seemed to notice or mention that Washington legalized both pot and gay marriage in one fell swoop.
Someone once told me Washington has the highest amount of churches per capita, and the lowest attendance. We’re home to The Evergreen State College, a highly respected liberal arts college. We have the highest minimum wage in the country, and rank among America’s wealthiest states. In 2012, the median household income in Washington was $57,573, while the national median household income was $51,37. It’s a beautiful state, is what I’m saying — not just in terms of clean air, plentiful wildlife, and beautiful state parks, but in terms of liberal state policies.
It does have problems — all states do. Washington, for example, has a population that is almost 86% white, which means most white Washingtonians are raised and interact in largely white-only populations. This creates an interesting situation where many of the left-leaning liberal anti-racism Washingtonians are actually pretty uneducated about race relations, and often labor under the mistaken conclusion that racism as a whole is in the past, and people of color experience no real fallout from racism.
In fact, Washington’s biggest problem is a sort of persistent denial that racism, misogyny, anti-atheism (or paganism, or any non-Christian religion), and homophobia are still pretty damn mainstream and well-accepted in large swathes of America. One of the most frustrating and frequent conversations I find myself having in my little liberal corner of the ‘verse is debating the existence of discrimination (or worse, that “reverse discrimination” is a thing).
Something I want to say to everyone who earnestly argues things like, “We don’t need to worry about the girls, we need to worry about the boys,” or, “The only people who won’t say [n-word] are people who are afraid of looking racist. It’s just a word,” or that workers who look for higher wages are lazy and unambitious: Your views are not controversial. They are not new.
It might seem like you’re adopting a radical philosophy because you happen to be enmeshed in a tiny liberal little corner of the country and world, and your particular social group likely does not agree with your stance — but if you move to pretty much any small town (even in liberal states like Washington!) or any stretch of the midwest or South, your views become the norm. Your views are the status quo. Your “controversial” opinions are the tired, worn out arguments that are repeated ad nauseum across the internet, news media, marketing world, and history books to justify discrimination of all sorts. You are the status quo, mindlessly repeating the bill of goods you’ve been sold.
I want to say this, but I don’t. Because I have said it, in the past, and I know what the response is. They say, no, I’m wrong. I’m close minded. I just am refusing to hear their response. In online debates, they read the first three lines of my response and angrily type out their rebuttal without ever reaching the body or the conclusion.
I did not grow up identifying as atheist, or feminist, or as an LGBT ally. I was not raised in an environment or culture where pro-union sentiment, progressive politics, and critical race theory were taught.
Religiously, I was raised LDS. I was baptized at 8 years old, and I was taught that men were the natural leaders of the household and religious institutions. I was taught that women existed as complements to men, to be helpmeets, mothers, and eternal companions. I learned, and believed, that I could not achieve the highest levels of heaven without a husband. I believed watching porn was a sin akin to adultery. I believed divorce was the sundering of the most sacred and special relationship available on earth. I was taught I was a warrior in the “Rising Generation,” and I believed that I was among the select, chosen by God to bring His word to the world in the last days. I was taught that Mormons were hated and discriminated against, that lies were told about us, and that we were persecuted. As a pre-teen, I wrote a short story (and imagined a longer novel) about a dystopian future where an anti-religious secularist government rounded up all the Mormons into concentration camps in Idaho, Utah, and Nevada — and I didn’t think it was an insane impossibility.
My parents voted Republican — my mom even campaigned for Nixon — and so when I turned 18, I voted Republican. I was anti-abortion. I didn’t even know homosexuality was a thing until I was 17. I didn’t think about gay sex or relationships or rights. My schools were largely populated with white people — “diversity” to me meant the students of Japanese, Chinese, or Korean descent. We had some native Hawai’ians in our ward who used to do a traditional hula/ fire dance at ward talent shows. I had four black classmates in middle school, but when a new high school opened up the following year, I went to the established school while they (and all the other “urban” students in the area) went to the newly opened school.
In other words, I was an LDS Christian white girl, raised in the political and religious attitudes of my parents and community. I spent the first 23 years of my life intentionally not seeking out information that contradicted my views. I was not the best or most devout mormon, but I did believe in the doctrine completely. I voted Republican. I voted for President Bush. In our state election, I voted for Rossi and complained bitterly about stolen elections when Gregoire won. I believed movements that agitated for the rights of women, minorities, and workers were unnecessary; that their aims had already been achieved and their equality enshrined and protected by law.
Because my dad was a lawyer, I was well versed in how to debate. I knew the arguments for my side. I knew the talking points of the arguments for the opposing side. What I did not know was the meat of the arguments; the history and the why — for either side. I thought I did, and to my everlasting shame, there are numerous conversations in my past where I hotly defended anti-abortion laws and the opposition of gay marriage.
But somewhere between my mom’s death and starting college, I began to question my assumptions and attitudes about the world. I began to research the issues. I began to expand my reading and worldview, and I discovered that the world I thought I knew did not exist.
I still learned wonderful things in my childhood, and I don’t regret it. I love my parents. They taught me to be compassionate and forgiving. They taught me the value of respectful debate, and of considering both the micro and macro. They taught me that a system can be perfect, but the people who enact it are imperfect and flawed. Their lessons, perhaps ironically, made it easier for me to divorce my emotional response to the facts and history and consider the information based on its merits.
When I assess the validity of information, I usually ask myself questions such as, Is it peer reviewed? Is it accepted by an academic consensus? Are the conclusions supported by statistical data, ethnographic research, and/ or longitudinal studies? What are the goals of the sources — who funded them? Why? What were their research methods? How do they distribute their conclusions? Are they engaging in deceptive tactics to get their information out?
For example, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is widely accepted and cited by both conservative and liberal academics and experts as a non-partisan and non-profit group that studies American economic policies. The Employment Policies Institute (EPI) is backed by a marketing firm who is funded by a cadre of conservative businessmen opposed to increasing the minimum wage. Their “studies” contradict all the statistical, longitudinal, and historical research regarding economics — but their web addresses are (respectively) www.epi.org and www.epionline.org. Someone who doesn’t know how to assess sources could easily confuse the two and think that the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) is the well-regarded Economic Policy Institute (EPI) cited by every economic expert in the media.
When I am examining the long-term impact of historical forms of discrimination, I follow the thread all the way through to today. When historical information is cited, I ask, Where the information comes from? Are contemporary documents cross-referenced? Are the archival and archaeological records compared and contrasted? What were the immediate effects? The generational effects? What were the political and social responses to the situation? How did the issue evolve?
Because my parents taught me to back up my arguments and encouraged my tendency to academic curiosity and research (though, admittedly, they were not nearly as comfortable with religious self-examination, which somewhat stymied my predilections), I learned to ask these questions of my sources and research fairly early on. Sadly, I didn’t apply these research methods and source assessments to socio-political and religious issues until I was in my mid-20s.
Still, I did. Eventually I did. So when someone comes to me and tries to tell me that racism is a thing of the past, or that misogyny isn’t a real issue, I find it incredibly frustrating because we’re approaching the discussion from completely different spaces. I used to hold those views and determined through prolonged and intense study that I was wrong; whereas they ignore the research and data I present them to just yell over me that I’m not listening and I am wrong.
You’re not controversial. You’re not new. You’re not innovative. You’re mouthing the same justifications to perpetuate discrimination that have been mouthed in various permutations for decades. You’re approaching the same old problems in the same old way, but you think you’re unique and innovative and different because you happen to live in one of the little liberal pockets of the ‘verse where your beliefs are challenged by your peers instead of sliding by unopposed.