I’ve been in Miami for the past week, spending time with the Cuban half of my family in sub-tropical warmth and being surprised by more than just the weather. This is, in large part, because in Miami I am immersed in Spanish: I hear it, I speak it, I think it, and the world is arranged differently in different languages. I have a loose theory – with no data to support it – that genuine multilingualism begets its own empathy, that it forces us into an understanding of other perspectives in a way that nothing else can. Struggling for the right phrase or finding that an exact translation does not even exist in another language, or the sheer physicality of powering through unfamiliar sounds with an unpracticed tongue, are stark reminders that simplistic projections of our own worldviews are terribly incomplete; that there are vast plains of knowledge and experience beyond our own. Even our mildest incursions into this exotic terrain are powerfully broadening, challenging our preconceptions and expanding our sense of human possibility.
The real power of a foreign language is that it forces us to encounter something other than ourselves and our own comfort zones, and whenever that happens, surprise is a frequent result. On Monday I learned that a wealthy ninety-year-old Cuban man – rich, old, male, Cuban, all Republican demographics, and he has a photo of George W. Bush on his wall to prove it – was a big enough fan of Obama not only to vote for him, but to donate not-insignificant amounts to his campaign, too; it’s a minor thing in the wider world, but it still shook my perceptions, and deeply. I had come to Miami armed with the expectation of political combat, not the expectation of mutual admiration for this year’s White House Christmas card. Reality is full of surprises.
Encountering reality unbiased by our own expectations is not an easy thing. We have expectations of just about everything we encounter; if our favorite TV shows disappoint us, it is because we expected that they could tell quality stories forever. We hear narratives – of, say, the dependent poor – and with enough repetition those narratives become something like truth, even if to examine the actual policies under discussion is to reveal the deep fallacy of such storytelling. Our political systems are very literally structured to reflect one particular vision of America, not America as it actually is.
Where I found this effect most profoundly manifested was in this description of the Romney campaign’s expectation for a landslide victory last month, and their disbelief at how events actually played out. The self-deception – and sheer ignorance – involved in creating such an expectation in the first place is rather enormous, and reflects the incredible shortcomings of both ideological insulation and so-called “conventional wisdom.” Conventional wisdom did not expect that Romney would win in a landslide – such a possibility was not predicted by any of the polls, and could only frankly be called a delusion – but it does explain one notable feature about the campaign’s projected electoral map: the sea of red (interrupted only by a blue Illinois) which they imagined onto the upper Midwest.
Now, the actual results of the election were nearly exactly opposite – the Great Lakes states went nearly entirely Democrat, with the outlier only red Indiana. But having lived on both coasts and spent time at Georgetown (a microcosm of Beltway insider opinion), I have regularly found myself explaining to people that the Upper Midwest is actually a pretty liberal place; the strength of the conservative vote in Southern Ohio keeps the state from turning blue sometimes, but Cleveland, for example, is a liberal bastion. This surprises many folks who haven’t actually thought past their own preconceived notions that the Midwest is less liberal than the coasts, but – Dennis Kucinich, you guys. Cleveland has voted for Dennis Kucinich! A whole bunch of times! Again and again! And he is such a starry-eyed lefty that even folks in Berkeley think he’s too much of an idealist. And yet: Cleveland loves that guy.
Bringing up Kucinich is usually sufficient to persuade skeptical coastalists that their view of the Upper Midwest is incomplete at best, but it’s frustrating that so many otherwise well-informed folks can be so assured of their own preconceived notions that they are uninterested in encountering the actual reality until someone contests their version of it – especially at Georgetown, where students who could speak six languages and recite histories of countries many Americans have never even heard of. But the mythology of a fundamentally conservative “heartland” is a powerful one, and it’s gone unquestioned by many, even though it flies in the face of the heavily urbanized, manufacturing-driven, declining Rust Belt culture of the Upper Midwest.
The Romney campaign ignored dozens of polls in the weeks leading up to the campaign, assuring themselves that no matter what people were actually saying, the campaign knew better. This is magical thinking at its finest, but it differs only in degree from what the rest of us do every day; in kind, we are all guilty of such ignorance. It is the human condition, and we may never be able to fully unshackle ourselves from our preconceptions – but in listening, in encountering other people and other cultures and other languages, we might as least loosen ourselves from the worst of our own narrow points of view.