Growing up in the Middle East – where, aside from the God you worship, your identity is often largely defined by the political leader you revere – being a centrist was a bad word. It signified your inability to make a decision, to take a side, to be loyal. That stuck with me, and, over the years, having watched family, neighbors, acquaintances, and close friends fight – in some cases to death – over their party affiliations, I maintained that ‘I’m with no one,’ because that sounded a whole lot better than the alternative, telling them that I’m a centrist. No one respects a centrist.
I was fortunate enough to leave the Middle East, at 14 years old, on a US State Department scholarship to study in the land of the free, a turn that would change my life forever. The America that welcomed me 14 years ago and the Middle East I grew up in were poles apart. You mean I can say whatever I want? Now, this may sound absurd to those of you who did not grow up on my side of the world, but, to 14-year-old me? She was ecstatic about the possibilities.
Partly, the excitement was about the ability to hold those in charge accountable when necessary, something we still cannot do in the Middle East. In fact, the latest exhibit was displayed on October 2, 2018. But the other, more practical reason behind my euphoria was realizing that I was suddenly surrounded by people who represented so much more than where they stood politically. Yes, they held their values near and dear, or I wouldn’t have surrounded myself by them to begin with, but they were capable of separating between “church and state,” or, in this case, friendship and politics. Never, in my first six years in America, did anyone ever make me feel any less worthy on the basis of my political affiliations. And, for the skeptics amongst you, the reason they treated me the way they did had nothing to do with my “foreignness” or my age at the time, and the fact that neither one of which allowed me to vote; I know this because even those who could and did vote were treated with the same respect and decency. Of course, you had the fanatics. Everyone has them. But they were the exception to the rule.
So, let’s just say that, when I returned to the Middle East, Abu Dhabi, more specifically, the State Department got their scholarship money worth. I’d, quite literally, preach about America and the freedoms in America. In fact, I would often reminisce with some of my American Habibis, then-expats in the UAE, about good ol’ ‘murica, and, quite simply, being allowed to be.
Imagine my not-so-pleasant surprise, after years of shaming the Middle East, when I returned to an unrecognizable, unforgiving, polarized* America.
Now, before we proceed, let me just preface by saying that if you’ve landed here hoping for a Trump roast, I’m afraid that’s not on the menu. Do I like him? No. Do I hate him? No. He’s not the point of this post, but if you insist, I’ll just say this: I don’t think Trump caused the polarization in America. I would argue that his election was the very result of it. A polarization that had been brewing for a while, and that is nobody’s fault but our own. We did this. Now, get off your left-right high horses, and join me in the center for a second.
My objective in this post is not to pinpoint the start of the polarization. I don’t think you can take a look at the last two decades in America and say there guys! This, this is the incident that started the polarization. Try it, and I promise you, there will be another person or two in the room, heck, there may even be 10, who think the exact opposite; they may think that exact incident actually brought America together, but you’ll never know because they won’t say a word. They may have tried once before, but you shut them down. So, not anymore. They’ll keep it to themselves. So, you go on thinking that your interpretation is the only possible right interpretation (after all, you only saw nods in the room and assumed the silence among the rest was affirmation), and “the others,” whose opinions may have been a little harder to digest and not the easiest to argue for, go on getting deeper and deeper in their corners, growing more and more convicted of their own interpretations, until you wish a-tad-difficult-to-digest was your biggest problem; they become extremist. Are you scared? You should be. We are doing this. It’s nobody’s fault but our own, so let’s take some damn responsibility.
So, here’s why I’m a centrist in America.
(no, it’s not my lack of opinions. God knows there’s no shortage of those).
Let’s do a little experiment together, shall we? The next time you’re in a random group, be it at school or work, in or out, tell them you’re a republican/conservative. Here are the immediate side effects you must watch out for, because what you just did is a very, very dangerous thing, my friend:
- You’ve already alienated almost everyone who considers themselves on the left; they’re no longer listening. You don’t exist laaaa lalalalala because:
- You are for guns in every home, possibly even in schools, who the hell knows anymore.
- You just hit send on a fax to hell, requesting that the powers that be extract the woman who just walked out of planned parenthood minus a fetus.
- You have personally just gotten back from the border. You were ripping kids off their mothers’ chests and jailing them, single-handedly.
- What are these Palestinians you speak of. They do not exist.
- You kicked a gay guy out of mass last Sunday, and the one before that.
- Let’s nuke everyone who is not an American (those who became “American” in questionable ways are fair game, guys).
- And, last but not least, TRUMP YAAAAAS.
Having fun yet? I am. Told ya, it’s better in the center.
Now, sit with another group, and tell them you’re a democrat/liberal. Here are the immediate side effects you must watch out for, because what you just did is a very, very dangerous thing, my friend:
- You’ve already alienated almost everyone who considers themselves on the right; they’re no longer listening. You don’t exist laaaa lalalalala because:
- You, sir, think that no one, anywhere, ever, have I said ever, should have guns. None. We will all just love one another and reason with the unstable man with a gun he got fromidontknowwhere, rather than defend ourselves. Defending ourselves is violent.
- You go on rallies endorsing every pregnant woman’s right to get rid of the damn kid, at any time, for any reason. Her and that douche should not have procreated to begin with, am I right.
- Let everyone in, there’s plenty of room for everyone! Oh, and you get a car, and you get a car. Sir, in the back. You’re here to steal our jobs and, like, rape people? You get a car, too!
- You stopped drinking iced Vanilla lattes because, hello, all Jews everywhere are hurting all the Palestinians.
- All people who identify as LGBTQ+ should be allowed to do unspeakable acts in every church, every Sunday.
- Yay world peace. Who needs nukes. And, more importantly, who the hell is Deterrence?
Chances are I’ve already lost many of you to the letsgetoffendedabouteverything syndrome. I truly hope you’re still here because we’re not evil in the center, and we certainly are not indifferent. In fact, our day-to-day life is likely a bit more challenging than the extremes because, believe or not, when we spot each other, we smile, yes, but then, we argue about the world’s most pressing concerns. Civilly. Each one of us leaving the conversation having learned something they may not have considered before.
Do I personally want to get an abortion? No; and I hope I won’t ever be in a situation where I feel like I have to. Do I think Dianne is going to hell because she got one? I don’t know. Let me tweet God real quick. Dianne is not going to hell, everyone. Look, I do not mean to make light of the situation. I am a devout Catholic, who believes in God, and I don’t think Dianne is going to hell. But, let’s be real, the God job was already taken and is now above my pay grade, so I have no idea who’s going where.
Do I think it’s bad that people boycott Starbucks? I admire their passion. Will I boycott Starbucks, probably not. Do I think that the belief that all Jews and all Palestinians everywhere hate each other is stupid? Yes. Yes, I do. My mentor is Jewish, my dearest friend is Palestinian, I dated a Floridian Jew, and I’m an Arab Catholic. Sue me. Or get offended on my behalf, whatever.
My point is this: (fanatics aside) most people on each side don’t actually think or do the aboveoutlined extemes, but many of those on their opposite side believe, at their core, that they do. The noise in the echo chambers on both extremes will get louder and louder, and America, the America that welcomed me in 2005, will no longer be salvageable. Not unless we start listening, actually listening, talking, analyzing, and comprehending the concept of nuances.
Here’s the crazy thing about democracy, guys. The democracy that America pioneered and exported to the world, that democracy, it wasn’t meant to be upheld only when it’s convenient.
So, do America a favor and snap out of your (what feels like) authoritarian states of mind.
In the meantime, and until a single label of where one politically stands stops meaning an entire laundry list of extremes, I’ll be here, making the center great again (pun absolutely intended). The left and the right have left me no other choice. And, until they give up their extremist ways, I’ll be chillin’ here, in the center.
*Many journalists and academics maintain that this is not the first time that the United States has been divided, and it may very well be the case (Vietnam comes to mind). But, anecdotally, in my experience, and in that of others who are much smarter than I am, this level of polarization in America is unprecedented; a polarization where it isn’t enough that I think my leader is the best. I must also think that yours is the anti-Christ.