Elliott: Liberals, conservatives should avoid generalizations

Jackson Elliott, Op-Ed Contributor

In my experience talking about politics with both conservative and liberal friends, I have found two observations to generally hold true: some conservatives think liberals are well-intentioned but misinformed, and some liberals think conservatives are clever but selfish. Both of these assumptions are so deeply rooted that people often hold them despite evidence to the contrary.

Several conservative Facebook pages — Occupy Democrats Logic and Laughing at Liberals — find their niche in accusing liberals of illogical thinking and stupidity. But it seems unlikely that a group that succeeded so spectacularly in passing the Affordable Care Act and changing minds on issues as controversial as marriage equality could have done so through ignorance. On the other hand, liberal blogs like The Daily Kos called former presidential candidate Mitt Romney “selfish” despite the fact that Romney, according to Politico, gave a larger percentage of his income to charity in 2011 than President Barack Obama. However often they are publicly disproved, these kinds of false assumptions guide the way we perceive liberals and conservatives.

This is often because most conservative policies seem less caring than liberal ones. What sounds better, giving money to those in need, or leaving them destitute? Protecting the public by making assault weapons illegal, or letting everyone buy a gun with which they could kill others? Stopping fake news before it gets to people, or letting it spread misinformation?

Such questions seem hardly worth asking; they speak for themselves. All the benefits are on the “yes” side, and all the negatives are on the “no” side. Who would want people to be poor, dead or misinformed?

It is understandable why someone would think that answering no to these questions is immoral. Yet there’s more to these issues than meets the eye. According to a 2012 study by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientists, conservatives and liberals are equally charitable, but give to different types of organizations. There seems to be something about charity that attracts conservatives just as much as liberals. Why does a group of people that seems to appreciate giving and free speech hold positions that seem so wrong?

I generally find that conservatives hold their positions because they ask a different set of questions: Should the government take money away from one group of people to give it to another that hasn’t worked for it? Should we let the government be the only group that owns guns, or should everyday Americans be able to protect themselves? Should we allow the government to decide what is true and false for us, or should we do that ourselves?

Conservatives tend to believe that every power we give the government comes at a cost. They say if the government has too much power, it can take away our freedom. In addition, when we try to secure a good life for some people through government programs, we often give the government more power over everyone.

In my experience, many conservatives embrace their positions because they have carefully considered both these sets of questions — though saying yes to the first set may offer security, saying no offers freedom. They empathize with those affected by the issues I mentioned earlier, but believe the best way to help them is to keep the government out of the way. I know I cannot fully explain the views every conservative holds in one column, but we must work to move beyond generalizations. Generalizations, after all, are generally incomplete.

Both conservatives and liberals must embrace tolerance and listen to the unique and diverse perspectives of others. So far, my time at Northwestern has been a process of discovering what I believe, and I find that I do so most effectively when I listen to people on both sides of debates. If we suspend our judgements and listen to others, we might develop a far more nuanced and accurate worldview.

Jackson Elliott is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.