Reaching Out

The best way to escape our current political predicament is to keep talking

Patrick Nelson/Flickr
Patrick Nelson/Flickr

This week, The Cut published a profile of Emma Sulkowicz, the former Columbia University undergrad best known as “mattress girl.” As a student, she carried a dorm-issue, extra-long twin mattress on her back for months as a silent protest of the administration’s inaction against her alleged rapist. Now 27, she is rethinking her political self-definition—forging friendships across gaping ideological divides and speaking with and listening to (and thereby disarming) some of her harshest critics. She has befriended, among others, psychologist Jonathan Haidt and libertarians Robby Soave and Nick Gillespie.

What struck me as undeniable, based on my own experience, was something she acknowledges toward the end of the piece. According to writer Sylvie McNamara:

Sulkowicz floated a theory that politically open-minded people like herself tend to come from families with intense conflict—that perhaps political division, even over high-stakes issues, is easier to stomach when you’re used to loving the people with whom you fight most bitterly. She often frames her journey this way: a byproduct of her temperament or experiences, rather than a deliberate political action.

This is not to say that a political and moral compass is pointless or impossible to achieve outside an ideological echo chamber. Rather, it is much more difficult to demonize and render abstract perspectives held by people with whom you come into intimate, nonideological contact. We live intensely segregated lives. The way out of so many of the impasses that keep us blocked will necessarily be through genuine contact and exchange.

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Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.


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