A discussion about politics today made me struggle to find a way to articulate why it is that for some people, politics is more personal than it is to others, and why some people mistrust people who vote in a way they can’t agree with (e.g., this comes up a lot in voting for Trump, even though i wasn’t talking about american politics).

and i thought about a classroom example that i think helps make it clear, though it’s a bit long:

imagine a middle school classroom, lets say there’s about 25 kids in it. last year, this particular class had different teachers for a couple of different subjects (like one for math and one for english) and one of those teachers is going to be their home room teacher this coming year. but the schools is weird and innovative and decides to the kids vote on who they want to be their home room teacher for this coming year.

the two options for teacher are mrs. grady and mr. malley.

mrs. grady teaches to the top, but she plays favorites. she has students that she hates for essentially no reason. she’s favoritist against them, “loses” their work frequently, makes them stay in at recess for minor and imagined infractions, never puts their work or behaviour up for awards or selects them for anything. 

then there’s mr. malley. he’s not perfect. sometimes he’s slightly dopey and doesn’t always get along with the principal. but he treats all his students fairly, and delivers a good education. the thing is – mrs. grady as their homeroom teacher has promised to take the students doing well in the class on a super wicked trip partway through the year, and mr. malley just can’t deliver that.

now take chester. he’s a great performing student. he won’t get much out of being mr. malley’s student, except a good learning experience for them and their entire class. but mrs. grady loves him, and he’ll get to go on that field trip and have a cool experience and enhance his learning if she’s his homeroom teacher.

but chester is in a group with 4 other friends. these 4 are all among the students that mrs. grady happens to hate. all of them barely passed their class with mrs. grady last year, despite being awesome students who work hard and know their stuff. and if she’s their homeroom teacher this coming year with control over the whole report card, those 4 kids are pretty much guaranteed to be held back a year, and stressed out the entire time because of it.

now chester has to decide – does he vote for mrs. grady and get that awesome learning experience and trip that benefits him, knowing that his classmates and friends will suffer under mrs. grady? or does he vote for mr. malley, who’s not perfect but will deliver them all a fair and equitable learning experience and probably make things better overall for the class, even if the top performers like chester get little to nothing from him?

you don’t have to decide who chester should vote for. maybe you have an opinion. it’s good if you do. keep it to yourself, that’s fine, but let’s consider how these options might play out for chester.

let’s say he votes for mrs. grady, and lets say that mrs. grady does get picked and now she’s going to be their teacher. suddenly, chester is surprised to find that his 4 friends? they’re all mad at him. some of them don’t even want to talk to him or be his friend at all anymore. it hurts, and he doesn’t think it’s fair. he was just doing what was best for him. 

but his friends – they’re not just hurt. they are, but also they’re now up doing an extra hour of homework and studying every night. all of them get held in for recess at some point. their grades get docked for things that chester doesn’t get in trouble for. and honestly, they’re so busy and stressed just trying to pass and not get unfairly held back that they don’t have time to worry about chester’s hurt feelings. after all, he didn’t worry about theirs when he voted for mrs. grady. he decided that his own self-interest and field trip was more important than their ability to go the year without stress and with fair treatment, so they’ve decided to protect themselves by only being friends with people who they can trust to be in their corner, who help them achieve their goals, rather than making it harder for them to succeed and be treated fairly.

chester goes on the field trip. he has a great time. he gets a leg-up on his next year’s coursework. 

three of his former friends manage to pass the class. one of them fails, despite the fact he would’ve passed easily under mr. malley. one of them ends up sick for half the summer because she worked herself to the bone all year just to pass. one of them only passed because he changed the way he behaved just to get in mrs. grady’s good books. one of them passed but with such low grades that she now can’t make it into the advanced-track classes she was gunning for, which has a snowball effect for which track of classes she’s allowed to take in high-school, and eventually which college she gets into. 

what matters isn’t if chester was right or wrong for voting for mrs. grady. what matters isn’t whether his friends are right or wrong for not wanting to be his friend anymore. the point is that when people act purely and predominately in self-interest, to the detriment of the more pressing needs of those they purport to care about, there are consequences, and there is a reciprocity to that lack of empathy and care.

why should i be close with someone i can’t trust to have my back? if your field trip matters more than my well-being and my ability to pass this class, then you’re probably not someone i can rely on to have my back in other situations either. 

for many marginalized individuals, keeping our distance from those who vote for our oppressors isn’t done because of a difference of opinion. to steal a quote here: pineapple on pizza is a difference of opinion, voting isn’t. votes with consequences to society in this way aren’t abstract. they have far-reaching consequences for our security, well-being (mental and economic), and long-term capacity for success.

imagine if chester had voted for mr. malley, and mr. malley got elected. now chester and his friends all stay friends. they’re all doing reasonably well in their studies. chester doesn’t get to go on that awesome field trip, but because they all have the time and energy, they manage to organize a trip for themselves anyway. it’s not the same, but they have fun, and learn something, and chester gets to enjoy it with all of his friends and not just the couple of top achievers in the class that mrs. grady would’ve picked for it.

and imagine if chester had voted for mr. malley, but mrs. grady still got selected by the majority of students. now chester hasn’t lost his friends. they’re still struggling, but because he’s close with them, he’s able to spend some of his time studying with them and helping them out to achieve better. he helps push back against mrs. grady’s unfairness, feeling empowered to do so because his friends gave him the green light to. through all of this, all of them pass with his help, and two of them even get to go on her exclusive field trip.

and if he’d voted for mrs. grady but mr. malley was elected? well, i bet his friends wouldn’t be happy, but they would possibly forgive him. they’d still be hurt though, because he did put his field trip above their education and well-being, but without the tangible consequence, people tend to move on easier.

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