A few days ago, as I sat down with a U.S. history book, attempting to absorb names and events, I noticed a few things that bothered me. Every time the textbook described a political party, I found that I agreed with about half of its views. If I tried to decide which of two competing parties was better, I could never make up my mind. All had some admirable concepts. All had ideas I found stupid. All were petty and even vicious toward their opponents.
When I tried to choose, I found it difficult, if not impossible, to call one ideology better than another. I was irritated that things should be so complicated.
I didn’t like seeing that grey area in a textbook because I so rarely see it in current issues. I’ve been forced to realize that without the benefit of time to make me objective, I see things in black and white much more than I like to admit. If I can see historical political parties as having differing but equally well-meaning visions, I should be able to see today’s parties in the same way. But I am extremely partisan. Though I attempt to be open-minded, and might succeed on occasion, my views almost always end up aligning with the same party.
The truth is we rarely choose our beliefs. They’re ingrained in us, and we fool ourselves into thinking we came to them through careful reason by reading and listening to information that backs them up. My opinions were most likely formed as soon as I could understand my family as they talked politics through dinner. I can detachedly agree that that’s a bad thing, but I can’t seem to let go of my biases. It seems obvious that no person or group can be right all the time, but it is incredibly easy to disregard different opinions.
Of course, I have some opinions that I would never consider compromising. For instance, I know slavery is wrong. I can say with confidence that, no matter how neutral I may try to be, I will never change my mind. Therefore it’s easy, when reading a history book, to wholehearted support abolitionists while condemning those who allowed slavery to continue. And, naturally, people who allowed slavery to continue included anyone who bought goods grown or made by slaves. Again, it’s easy for me to look back and be objective, but when I read that many people chose to buy only produce grown by free men, I realized that I might not have been one of the good guys.
My closet is filled with clothing that was manufactured unethically. A good portion of the shirts I wear were likely made in sweatshops by severely underpaid people, perhaps children. Though that fact has often made me vaguely uncomfortable, it has never stopped me from buying a sweater I like.
It’s strange to me how easy it is to become complicit in systems I don’t agree with. But I can see the past with a perspective that can be difficult to apply to my real life. Because I have a tendency to compare myself to the people in my textbooks, I can’t help but recognize my own hypocrisy. It almost makes studying for history tests worthwhile.