1. A day or two after you get home from your first semester at a liberal university in the Northeast, ask your best friend John to go to lunch. He suggests El Stuffed Pepper, a restaurant owned and staffed by Mexicans with a menu full of headings like “Salads y Appetizers.” At John’s suggestion, invite some other friends from high school, hoping none of them will come so that you and your best friend can just sit and talk about the Avett Brothers.
2. When you arrive before John does (he’s always a little—or very—late), say, “Mesa para dos, por favor,” and smile when the man responds in Spanish. Wave to your friend Erika, the twenty-seven-year old waitress you met last summer, the summer you spent in a hometown that didn’t feel like your hometown anymore after you spent the previous nine months in South America learning about global capitalism and social issues, the summer where you self-identified as a radical without anyone really understanding what you meant, the summer where you were welcomed home only to variations of “How was your trip?” and the irresistible pull of television shows you had already watched far too many times.
This dinky little Mexican restaurant, the restaurant your college friend admits isn’t really a motivating factor in his potential to visit you in Nashville, the restaurant you and your friends would sneak to on weekdays your senior year to inhale large plates of grease in unhealthily short spans of time, the restaurant you looked forward to coming back to throughout your time down South — it means even more to you since that afternoon last summer you spent chatting with Erika about how she learned English at twelve when her family moved from Mexico.
Smile when she waves back before you sit down at the table to wait for your friend. Open the menu even though you always order the same thing. Eat a few chips, dipping at least one of them into the watery salsa.
3. Get up to hug your friend when he walks in the door. Sit back in the booth and ask him the first of many questions about his decision to switch from Vocal Performance to a German major. He talks about his upcoming opportunity to spend his junior year abroad and thanks you for your help with his application: he’s excited to see more of the world.
4. Another friend arrives (dammit!), so make room for him at the table. You all end up talking about your dating lives. Your friends know about your recent break-up with your high school girlfriend, how it was sad but you’re feeling more and more okay about it all, so tell them about the date you went on the week before the break.
John also went on a date before the break. “It was fine,” he says. “She was cute, but there was nothing really there. Also, I think we disagreed on things.”
Ask, “What do you mean?”
“Well, for example…” he looks around the restaurant, at nothing in particular but with an apparent sense of purpose. “This might be divisive,” he says. He proceeds to tell an anecdote about how his date claimed, based on a sociology course she was taking, that pregnant African-American women are nearly four times more likely to have their infants die in childbirth because of institutional racism. Your other friend is looking at his phone.
5. Say that you’d believe it. At some point in this exchange, a waiter has come, taken your orders, and delivered the food. Eat a bite of rice and steak that is covered in melted white cheese.
John starts talking about how a statement like that is ridiculous, how the situation is way more complicated in ways that don’t have anything to do with race. When you ask him if she had research to back it up, he says in exasperation, “Well, sometimes research is wrong!”
6. Confused and upset, ask John over the course of several questions why he chooses to doubt research about something he doesn’t have any experience with. He shifts between reiterating that it’s way more complicated than “all that” and expressing his belief that the Left is Indoctrinating people with Ideology. Your heart sinks when he starts to talk about Jordan Peterson (q.v. “Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy,” New York Times).
As he continues to talk about the left, go on the defensive. Reassure yourself mentally that the left, based in love and inclusion and justice for all, has the moral high ground over the right and is therefore, (Naturally! Of course! How could it not be!) always undeniably correct. Upset at what you are sure must be ignorant statements, simultaneously despair at the spread of hateful rhetoric and remind yourself of your own position on said apparently high ground.
7. Stubbornly unwilling to exploit your privilege and just let it go, push back. Ask him what he means by the phrase “Indoctrinating people with Ideology.” He says he guesses he doesn’t really know what the word ideology means. Your other friend, who has spent nearly the whole meal on his phone, says, “Just move on guys, neither of you are going to change each other’s minds.”
8. Realize two things, practically simultaneously. (1) John’s only sources of information on these kinds of topics seem to be Jordan Peterson’s YouTube lectures: he’s never been exposed to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Howard Zinn or Ta-Nehisi Coates. (2) This fact only makes you sadder, because you’re not sure if he can separate honestly-held conservative viewpoints from hate speech.
9. Instead of dropping the subject, call John closed-minded. When he doesn’t respond for a moment, think of all the times you two have sung your favorite songs to various audiences. Remember that time you called him in a panic, questioning the value of your life, when he told you that you were one of the few people in this world that he knew who could make it a better place. Think of a line from a song by your favorite band: “I want to sit with my enemies / And say we should have done this sooner.” How could your best friend, the beautiful human that he is, ever have become your enemy?
10. This question makes you consider something that you have not allowed yourself to consider for a long time since you got caught up in your social awareness: not all conservatives are hateful. Even if you fundamentally disagree with their viewpoints, conservatives are humans too, despite what the liberal media might claim, and there are reasons they believe what they believe. Consider for the first time whether maybe you too, in a different way than John, cannot separate conservative viewpoints from hate speech.
11. Just when you’re about to use these memories as a reason to give up and fight another day, your friend comes through for you and picks up the slack: John admits he’s closed-minded but says that he’s trying to learn the guitar and get his physical fitness in shape. He doesn’t have time to learn the other side.
12. Tell him he can’t argue against the other side blindly if he doesn’t even know what kinds of things it stands for. Exhale when he admits you’re right. Sit up straighter when he asks you to tell him about something from your travels that you felt opened your eyes to the oppression in the world.
13. Talk about how the overt misogyny and domestic violence in Bolivia opened your eyes to subtler (read: functionally the same) misogyny in the United States. This becomes a jumping off point for a longer conversation about social justice. At some point, your other friend leaves (now, we can really start talking!) Sit there talking with John for another hour or so, in which John says he will come to the bookstore so that you can give him some stuff to read. Leave a nice tip before waving goodbye to Erika. Before you get in your cars, thank John for listening. He says of course, and you two hug goodbye.
14.That night, anxiously post in the private Facebook group of the bookstore where you work (staff: mostly female, mostly white, all liberal) about how you are unsure how to help your friend who seems to have fallen into the Jordan Peterson rabbit hole, hoping that he doesn’t conflate the advice of making one’s bed every morning with the idea that men and women have inherently distinct societal roles or that trans-women aren’t real women, as Dr. Peterson seems to think. Your co-workers’ comments range from links to articles to quotes from bell hooks.
15. After you post, research Jordan Peterson. Read articles from places like The Guardian and The New York Times with titles as varied as “Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy” and “What the Left gets wrong about Jordan Peterson.” Watch some of his numerous lectures, most of which are vaguely yet noncommittally “philosophical” but have nothing to do with social ideas. Admit to yourself that though you fundamentally disagree with Peterson’s ideas regarding white privilege, gender, and sexuality, you recognize that his self-help advice, as generic as it may be, has helped many people, and that’s nothing to scoff at.
Send John these articles and ask him if wants to watch the documentary 13th with you. Your YouTube feed, once filled with Tiny Desk Concerts and clips from How I Met Your Mother, is now filled with videos for Jordan Peterson: you realize how easy it might be to get sucked down the rabbit hole.
16. Watch a TED Talk called “A black man goes undercover in the alt-right.” The video’s speaker, a victim of police brutality Theo E.J. Wilson, talks about the necessity of seeing other viewpoints outside of what he calls the “liberal echo-chamber.” The comments on the video come primarily from conservatives bemoaning the widespread intolerance of the left, the side that prides its itself on inclusivity. Consider your own Facebook feed, which displays content from pages like “Sassy Socialist Memes.”
17. A few days later, wait to take your lunch break until John finishes some errands. You’re willing to forgo the traditional bookstore eat-and-read lunch break to be with your friend, even though you’re in the middle of a gorgeous book, The Tsar of Love and Techno, a book which you will end up loving more than practically anything you read in the survey of classical literature you took at the liberal university you attend in the Northeast. Spend the whole lunch talking about nothing but how refried beans may or may not be made.
18.Take him to the bookstore after lunch and ask him what he wants to read. He says he wants some fiction, something to inform him about the state of this world where everyone seems to have their own facts. You don’t stay very up to date on modern fiction, so you gaze at the shelves for a bit. He says, “Wait, I meant non-fiction.” Spend the next half-hour handing John various books: some to make him “woke,” some that you just think he’ll enjoy.
When he buys a stack of books, his total is more than a hundred dollars. Give him your employee discount and assure him that you will read these with him.
19. Off and on for the next few days, think about your friend. Think about another line from a song by your favorite band: “Finding out that we occupy / Somebody else’s opposing side / On the banks of some great divide / Two versions of a dream.” Remember how apolitical you were in high school: you were too invested in fat Russian novels and indie folk rock and pseudo-pretentiously “assessing the human condition” and trying to fall in love for the first time at eighteen. Wonder when your heightened social awareness started to make you see everything in the binary. As Christmas Day gets closer, think about the message of love and redemption and the good in people that you have heard your whole life everywhere from your mother to Sunday school to Star Wars.
20. Applaud Theo E.J. Wilson and people like him who, despite having personal identities threatened by certain conservative viewpoints, are still beacons of light in the ongoing human struggle to understand one another.
21. Reread John’s essay for his application to study abroad, which contains the line, “I believe as hearts connect through conversation, the world becomes a better place.” You stand firm with the leftist ideology that you have grown to adopt in your faith in its fundamental tenets of love and justice for all. You begin to realize, though, that in some ways John was right about the indoctrinating capabilities of this ideology that has in some ways given you the same one-track mind that your Ideology decries. Are you succeeding at helping to create spaces that encourage people to listen as well as to speak? Hope that you listen as well as you think you do.
22. A few weeks later, at a New Year’s Eve party where everyone has either drunk a little too much or not quite enough, your high school friend Emily’s college friend, visiting from out of town, asks you if you’re taking Spanish at college. Answer no but that you try to practice with members of the Latinx community on campus.
John and Emily start talking about the word Latinx (you are trying not to see the world in terms of the binary, so you support the term even though you’re not sure really how to say it in Spanish), and John says, “I think that term is weird.”
He glances at you, then back at Emily, and shrugs. “I don’t know, maybe Peter will bring me around.” Clap John on the shoulder, finish your drink, and ask if anyone has read The Tsar of Love and Techno.