The Bubble

Two posts in two days? Well, I had some thoughts on the way to work, so, yeah.

If you’re a liberal (or progressive, if you prefer, but I’m a traditionalist, and I’m going with “liberal”), then you’ve almost certainly heard the argument that liberal elites live in bubbles isolated from the “real world”, which explains their “out of step” views and morality. That is, if we lived in “Real America”, we’d be more like everyone else.

Okay, so this is mostly a bullshit argument. Except for the part where some liberal views are, indeed, out of step with much of America. The thing is – we tend to be a step ahead. That’s where the term “progressive” is useful.

I got to thinking about this in more concrete terms today, as I was driving to work, listening to a podcast from my local PBS station (gosh, SO liberal). The podcast was called “Ask a Muslim”, and it was literally that – they had a panel of Muslim experts (one Imam, one university professor, and one stand-up comic who does outreach using the title “Ask A Muslim”). This all-Muslim panel answered some very basic questions about Islam as a faith, and as a culture, and then took questions from the phone lines and e-mail.

I didn’t learn a lot that was new, in fact. I was pleased to find that my perception of Islam isn’t all that far off-base. One thing I did learn, though, that surprised me, was that the Muslim community in the U.S. is so small that most Americans don’t know a Muslim. (Or, perhaps, don’t know they know one.)

This surprised me, because I currently have at least three Muslims in my lab – the ones I’m sure of are all women, but I think two of the men are, as well. I don’t ask, because it’s none of my business, as the boss, how or if they worship. But the three women are open with it.

The three women run the gamut: one of them dresses like I do, and religion doesn’t appear to be a significant part of her daily life. Another wears a headscarf but otherwise completely “western” apparel, and is clearly a bit more observant. The third is covered from headscarf to feet in traditional clothes, and has spent many half-hours in my office discussing Islam and the role of education in the faith with me. So, not only do I know several Muslims in “real life”, I know a wide variety of “types” of Muslims. Just like I know a wide variety of “types” of Christians and “types” of…well, pretty much everyone.

So the fact that Muslims in the U.S. aren’t monolithic wasn’t a shock to me, but it got me thinking about my “bubble”. I interact with a minimum of three Muslims on a daily basis. “Real” America interacts with none.

If you look more closely, this is true of other groups that are frequently demonized in American society, too. I know quite a lot of gay people, and have been to one of their weddings. One of my colleagues is a lovely transgender woman with whom I’ve had many discussions about parenting. These discussions are interesting, because she was her children’s father when they were young, and, again, this is an open and “out there” part of the conversation.

I could go on. Now, let’s be up front about one thing: I don’t claim to be free of racism. I’m a white woman in the United States of America, and racism? You’re soaking in it. But I do think I can say: all of mine is unconscious, and when it becomes briefly part of my consciousness, I admit to it and try not to do it again.

So, my “bubble” – it’s the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s full of people who aren’t like me. My bubble is probably the first or second bubbliest in the nation, though I suspect Manhattan is similar. Liberal “bubbles” are the melting pot you heard so much about in elementary school.

So, what does this mean? Well, it means that I’m used to the idea that everyone isn’t like me. It doesn’t bother me, most of the time. It means I’m not afraid of Muslims. I’m not weirded out by transgender people. I’m not bothered by a person wanting their personal pronouns to be “them” and “their” because they’re gender nonconforming and would rather you didn’t box them in as male or female.

It means, further, that the Muslims I know are not afraid to be themselves. They expect, given the “bubble” to mostly be treated as people rather than caricatures. It means that my colleague is happy to discuss her life before and after transition (incidentally, even in the Bay Area, this wasn’t always “safe” – she had some really bad times in the 80’s and 90’s). It means that not only do I get to meet people who are not like me, but I get to learn about those people. It means they’re willing to talk to me about their experiences and their community. It means they invite me to their weddings and parties.

So, “Real America”, then. What’s that?

It appears to be a place where the vast majority of people, most of the time, are alike (or pretending to be alike). And, again, before I go further: I fully acknowledge that there are LOTS of awesome people in Real America, people who aren’t afraid of folks who are different. But bear with me: if you don’t know any Muslims, there’s a much higher chance that you have the propagandized image of them. I’ve had a few people tell me I’m just “lucky” that none of the Muslims in my lab and classes have never tried to murder me. I’ve had far more tell me that, sure, they know there are “good Muslims” that aren’t like the rest.

Okay, guys, “the rest” are the vast majority. Most Muslims are like most Christians – that is, they are varied and individual, and, by and large, peaceful and kind and good neighbors.

Similarly, if you’ve never known a transgender person, you might have been thinking how “weird” my discussion of parenting with a parent who used to be male and is now female was. Get this: to me, that’s not “weird”. It’s just “lunch with Mary”. (Note: her name is not Mary. But I didn’t ask for permission to use her real name.)

What living in the “liberal bubble” does is protect you from a fair number of overt biases. It teaches you to live with people who aren’t like you. And, further, this includes groups I haven’t discussed. By and large, getting along with conservatives who disagree with me is easier when we both live in the bubble. Because we both expect to be disagreed with.

So, remember when I said liberals in bubbles (cities) are a step ahead?

Interracial relationships became acceptable, then common, in cities first. Then elsewhere. Now the majority of Americans agrees with those of us in the bubble. Same for homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Same for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. We get there first…then the rest of the culture follows. Not always as fast as we’d like.

So, what’s a bubble? It’s a place where we’ve tossed in a little bit of everything, and, yeah, I think those of us in bubbles are a bit arrogant about it. But I also think we come by it honestly – our way, in my opinion, is better.

If you’re afraid when you see a Muslim in an airport, wouldn’t you prefer not to be? My advice: find a Muslim and get to know them. If you’re afraid of transgender people in bathrooms, wouldn’t you prefer not to worry about it? Find a transgender person and talk to them.

Finally, the notion of the “bubble” is that we’re somehow isolated from the real world. Really? How so? There’s more of the real world per square mile where I live than in most of America. We’re the ones who aren’t isolated from difference. The country would be better off if more people listened to those of us in “the bubble”.



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3 responses to “The Bubble

  1. So, a friend on Facebook points out that “university town” also creates a similar “bubble”, and she is, of course, correct. Same basic effect – even a tiny university town tends to be much more progressive than Average America.

  2. Reisen

    Wow, great post! I never realized how bigoted I was. Thanks for opening my eyes.

    *Note: this comment was edited using The Kitten Setting.

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