During the Cohort 3 field course on climate justice (Toronto, May-June 2017, organized by York University) a question was circulated among participants:
Can you tell me about an encounter you had with someone who had a very different opinion on climate change or other social issues, and how you reacted to it?
This is the third of a series of blog posts that describe the experiences of those who kindly volunteered to tell their stories. We aim to do this to explore ways that we can better communicate with those people who might not share our views or understand the path we have taken. The following is a discussion with Mesha Richard, a master’s student at York University in Disaster and Emergency Management, who also helped edit and co-write this piece.
LG: Could you tell me about some of your experiences with people that have either very different views from yours on climate change and the environment or social issues. Tell me about how it made you feel and how you dealt with being in that situation.
MR: There is one very particular recent exchange that comes to mind. I was planning on spending the day with a relative and we had been invited by her friends to go over to their place. They were a lovely family of four, with two young children that were incredibly well behaved. The parents both worked as entrepreneurs. They were your typical middle class family.
Partway through our dinner exchange, it came to my attention that they were very clearly a much more “conservative” family. I’m a pretty liberal person so I was trying to watch what I was saying because I was a guest, and they are close friends of my relative.
Later in the evening there was a particular moment that was the tipping point. One of their children wanted to show me what they had made for show and tell for school. It turned out they were cookies that they had handcrafted that said things like “build that wall” and “lock her up”. I just had an internal cringe where I just couldn’t believe that they were convincing their children that they should have these political views that they couldn’t possibly understand completely.
LG: How old were the children?
MR: I think they were 7 and 10. They are definitely elementary school-aged children and as much as you can say that they are at an age where they can reason, they’re not going to comprehend exactly that they are saying. What does “build a wall” really mean to a seven-year-old child?
This really changed the dynamic because the conversation really shifted to the level of support they have for Trump and how he was going to make everything better and how they supported a lot of these key platforms that he had promoted during his campaign.
LG: What are some examples of platforms they supposed?
MR: Obviously, building the wall which was plainly written on the cookies. Also, how the economy should be number one above everything else; that he was going to bring back jobs and put the liberals in their place. This was based on the idea that liberals just throw money away on more social programs and they didn’t think that these [programs] had any value.
I’m a very opinionated person, and I know that I can talk a lot. This was just one of those times where I just had to watch what I was saying and just try to hear, no matter how awkward that was.
LG: Why did you feel that you couldn’t intervene in this situation?
MS: There’s a couple of reasons. The first is that I was a guest in their house. The second is that there were two fairly young children present. Also, that they are close friends of my relative. I didn’t necessarily want to create any sort of tension between them and my relative; that would not be fair. If we were going to go down the rabbit hole of really getting into some strong political, not even debate, but more like argument, which was how my mood felt, then that was not appropriate in front of the children who were just showing me what they wanted to bring to their class for show and tell.
Lessons learned from this encounter
MR: Right before the supper, I had a phone conversation with a friend about the kind of surprise many of us felt when Trump won the election. And we acknowledged that we must be surrounding ourselves with like-minded people too much. That we don’t have these challenging exchanges with people that have alternative views.
LG: What struck me most about this encounter was how normal these cookies were to the children. I wish I could see how their teacher responded to them bringing those cookies to show and tell. It reminded me of a quote by Nelson Mandela that was popularized by Obama after the Charlottesville tragedy this August: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Laura Gilbert is a PhD student at McGill with the E4A project. Her research interests focus on ways that policy can alter environmental values, perceptions, and attitudes to facilitate the implementation of environmental initiatives to lower water consumption.
Mesha Richard is a master’s student in the field of Disaster studies and emergency management at York University. Her research interests relate to risk perceptions and risk communications relating natural hazards.