Through the magic (or scourge, depending on your viewpoint) of Facebook, I recently got back in touch with an old school friend. When I was growing up, this friend was someone who treated me well while most other kids were very cruel to me. I know he’s a decent, kind, and goodhearted person because I witnessed those attributes when we were both too young to hide our true characters and our selves were revealed through daily actions.
Since we have had only sporadic contact for the last few decades or so, I didn’t really know much about the sort of person he was on other levels. While I feel that I know his core character, I didn’t know much about other aspects like his current political, religious, or social views. I only knew that he was a good person, had some spiritual questions and confusion at one point, and was deeply interested in music.
Through the snippets of information that he has put up on Facebook, I’ve learned that he’s politically conservative, pro-gun, and strongly Christian. I, on the other hand, am politically liberal, such that I don’t think that “socialism” is a dirty word. I am also anti-gun and am more of a New Age/Buddhist thinker. At first, I was shocked at how our mentalities were so different when we’d grown up as comrades in KISS-fandom (that’s the grease-painted rock group of the 70’s, not lip-locking). How could someone who loved rock and roll so much end up so conservative and have self-professed “redneck” tendencies?
Like many very liberal people, I’ve sometimes felt that conservative thinkers are “wrong”, stupid, selfish, or lacking in morality and sensitivity. Mind you, I’m not talking about political theater like Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, but sincere conservative discourse. I’ve believed that their desire not to use tax money for social programs is based on greed and a wrong-headed notion that everyone has the same opportunities in life and those who “fail” made the wrong choices or didn’t try hard enough. My thinking has always been that we all have choices in our lives, but not everyone has equally numerous or good ones. It is possible to do all the right things and still find oneself in a bad position, so we should be our brothers’ keepers and help people even if it means our material quality of life is reduced somewhat.
Getting to know my old friend again threw my thinking into a spin. I know that he is not selfish, small-minded, stupid, or amoral. In fact, I know he’s giving, intelligent, and moral. There were some incidents in his youth that he was not proud of, which we discussed, and I know he felt remorse and regret for them. I know he has a highly developed conscience and wants to be the best person he can manage to be. So, how did he turn into the type of person who talks about people taking his gun when they can pry it from his cold dead hands?
The answer is that he and I have led vastly different lives over the past two decades. We both got married and remain happily married to our respective spouses, but he had three kids to raise and I chose to be childless. He moved to Texas to work and support his family while his kids were home-schooled, and I moved to Tokyo where I have lived the DINKS (double income, no kids) life for much of my time here. He changed jobs a few times and had some financial setbacks when the tech bubble burst, while I have experienced relative smooth economic sailing and saved an appreciable amount of money.
My friend has lived in a culture that is fairly dog-eat-dog, and I’ve lived in a culture that has a lot of socialist tendencies. Though Japan has been slowly transitioning from a society with a safety net that keeps a large middle class in place to one which is more competitive, it is still a kinder, gentler place than America. Japan’s national health care system, while imperfect, ensures a healthy, long-lived population where every sick person can be taken care of without question. America has a system where the “haves” have the greatest care in the world and the “have-nots” are totally screwed, and people have to worry about the dreaded words “pre-existing condition”.
Employers in Japan have kept a lot of dead wood on the payroll because lifetime employment has been the norm for a long time. They also tend to be more tolerant of incompetence among employees and are reluctant to actually fire anyone. America, on the other hand, favors and rewards those who are capable and put forth their best effort. If you’re smart, hard-working, and lucky, you can forge a good life in the U.S. with your wit and tenacity. Japan is far more likely to find a place for the unlucky and less intelligent, and all they ask is that you make a good show of doing the best you can and get along with everybody in your workplace. You can still fail in Japan, of course, but you’re likely to be given quite a few chances first. With a lot of “at will” employment in the U.S., you have to protect what you’ve got and fight for more.
One of the things I have learned from living in Japan, because it is a core value of the culture, is that it’s important to respect and understand other viewpoints, though not necessarily to agree with them or adopt them. While I have tried to apply this in the abstract in discussions that included conservative viewpoints, I found it more difficult to apply in concrete situations. It’s hard not to be dismissive of people who espouse socially and politically opposite views to one’s own.
The bottom line, though, is that getting to know my friend again helped me see that some people hold conservative views because their reality is so different from mine that these views make sense in the world they struggle in, just as my views make sense in the one I live in. I had to crack my mind open a little and try and see our political differences as the result of something other than the pat explanations that elevated me and put down conservative thinkers. It is possible for people to disagree with you and for their arguments to be just as logical and rational as yours. I’ve gone a long way toward completely internalizing the fact that people of differing opinions may simply have different values and priorities due to the life they’ve led, thanks to my conservative old friend.