Study Abroad: Cure for Political Apathy?

Note: I know it’s been a long time since my last post. Thank you to all my followers and readers for your patience.

My French homework for today was fairly simple: write a paragraph in French using transition words (par exemple = for example, en somme = in conclusion, etc.) However, anyone who knows me personally knows that I can’t write about just anything. Even if it’s just one sentence, I want to say something. I was not going to write a paragraph called “Why Cats Are Better than Dogs” just to use the required vocabulary.

So I wrote about the Steubenville trial.

I don’t need to summarize it here; we’ve all heard about it and watched the news reports, (and if you haven’t, Google is a magical thing.) Though it is an extremely important subject to discuss, that’s not what I’m writing about today.

Today in class, I handed in my paragraph. My stone-faced professor, who has made every student nervous since the beginning of the semester, picked up my paper and read the first few lines. Then, she looked at me. Her ice-colored eyes twinkled with the oddest look I’d ever seen, a cross between so-the-quiet-one-is-a-little-activist-now and I-just-asked-you-to-write-a-paragraph-why-didn’t-you-write-about-cats-and-dogs?

But she just said, “OK,” and shuffled my paper in with the rest of the tamer, friendlier paragraphs.

****

There are two things you don’t talk about, ever: religion and politics.

I had that lesson firmly fixed in my brain since high school. Then, in college, I got into a few heart-wrenching political and religious debates with people that I cared about, and after that, I kept my mouth firmly shut.

In America, your beliefs become a part of you, a way to identify you. Joe Schmo: accountant, Giants fan. Republican. Once you identify with a certain political or religious ideology, people automatically associate you with a slew of values that you may or may not agree with. And if you happen to identify with a different ideology than the other person, there is an awkward, embarrassed pause that is interrupted when someone brings up the weather.

During my first week in France, the staff at the study abroad center encouraged us to voice our opinions. The French love to debate, they said. If you disagree, it doesn’t make you a bad person. You can argue about something over dinner and go back to being best friends in the morning.

And so far, it’s worked out well for me, at least with my host family. Political issues are brought up all the time at dinner, and we watch the news together every night. We’ve touched on all the big no-no’s this semester: abortion, gay marriage, war, you name it. Many times, we’ve disagreed. AND IT’S OK. We still all get along so well, and seeing them is the highlight of my day.

Being in a foreign country has made me take ownership of my American nationality. Yes, America’s screwed up. Yes, we have many complex problems. And we need to talk about them. Shoving politics and religion under the rug for the sake of politeness isn’t going to change anything. We need to talk, discuss, argue, whatever, to find the best solution. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that every single opinion is valid, because every person is valid. I’d like to close with a quote from the best history teacher I ever had: “I have the right to disagree with you, but I will fight for your right to say what you believe.”

À bientôt!

– Vicky

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