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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

Internal plurality

Not one, two or three, but five melatonin tablets slid down my throat a few minutes before I hopped on the flight. I was going to pass out one way or the other. 

Before I even got on the airplane, my friend Isaac told me, “Don’t speak to anyone.” When you fly from San Francisco to Chicago on a red-eye, talking to someone was not an option. I had to get some rest before my drive home at 5 a.m.

My head bobbed up and down as folks shimmied through the aisle to their seats.

“Are you drunk or just tired?” a woman said as she slid into the middle seat next to me with bags of food and giant soft drinks in her hands. Startled, my neck erected like a skyscraper. “Just very tired … late flight,” I uttered back. 

“Have some chicken and fries,” she said. Before I knew it, she had shoved a third of the chicken and fries that she had brought onto the plane into my hands. I only found out later she felt bad and wanted to help me “sober up.” 

A culture of write-off permeates our political culture, where those we disagree with are considered irredeemable and thus impossible to work with. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen members of the Tennessee legislature expelled for a protest on gun violence. A transgender woman legislator was banned for the rest of the session in Montana for speaking out about transgender rights. Books are banned up and down the spectrum for their content. Even here on Notre Dame’s campus, a professor is experiencing death threats and severe harassment for her scholarship on abortion, while those who voted for Trump are deemed irredeemable and thus unable to be conversed with. Or the text I got after one of my recent columns that read, “Why even engage with people who don’t see you as fully deserving of dignity?”

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene recently tweeted, “We need a national divorce. We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government.” A philosophy that liberalism has stretched too far, that the radical experiment in self-governance that we embarked on 200 years ago must fall apart for any hope of survival.  

It’s not solely a philosophy on the right, as left-leaning folks call for Blu-exit and ending federal funding to red states that aren’t pulling their weight. Some call for complete immigration to Canada. Many leaders champion the idea of the impossibility of reconciling.

Going against Isaac’s advice, I rumbled, “Where y’all from?” 

My flight buddies, Denise and Shane now live in Chicago. Shane moved from Wisconsin to Chicago for school. They were in California visiting Napa and drinking a ton of wine. If anyone should have asked who was sober, it should have been me!

Shane currently works at a hospital in the lab, but his dream is to own his own company. As he described it, “That ain’t gonna happen with all the debt I need to pay off first.”

It’s their second marriage. Denise has a son from her first marriage who she describes as the light of her life. A son, now 25, is working towards a master’s in foreign policy at Georgetown to become a foreign service officer. She gushed to me how he spoke seven languages and she could “barely get a handle on the King’s English.” 

I asked her what she believed some of the biggest problems in the world were from her place in the world.

She railed against what she deemed as the “un-Christianizing” of education. She believes that schools were becoming hotbeds for “gay education” and that “sexualizing of children is the devil’s work.” She also believed that there needed to be more stuff about African American education. That if she had been able to, she wouldn’t have allowed her son to take languages in high school because they were a “waste of time,” which, of course, is ironic considering how languages have turned into her son’s entire career. 

When Zadie Smith won the 2016 Welt Literature Prize, she stated in her acceptance speech that, “If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities.”

This is interesting when read in conversation with Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” gaffe from the 2016 election, where she said, “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.’ Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it [...] they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.”

Calling people a “basket of deplorables,” in my view, is not the problematic part of her statement as some people’s behavior around politics over the past few years has been cruel and deplorable. However, I do react to her calling half the American population irredeemable. 

That irredeemable half would include my own family, Shane, Denise and a lot of really passionate people on this campus. Conversely, I could be lumped in with folks who are radically irredeemable from another angle. Individuals who are all attempting to find where they stand on issues.

Some beliefs are violent in the ways they interact with our lives or directly lead to the marginalization of people. Racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic, homophobic and transphobic beliefs should be called out for the harm they perpetuate. Anti-religious, anti-rural or elitist remarks can and do perpetuate harm of their own and should be called out as well.

I think it’s OK to call that out. Policies that attack 12-year-old kids figuring out their place in the world, use human beings as political props by sending hundreds away from where they’re attempting to get asylum and control the body of a pre-teen who was raped by a family member are all really cruel. There are no flowers or pleasantries that make those policies kind.

However, there’s also this aspect of shared humanity. We all mess up, say things even when we don’t know the full context behind our statements, do things that hurt others or just generally act in weird ways. That’s what it means to be human. We are all internally plural. Some, like Shane and Denise, are more internally plural than others, but we all are conflicted in some way or another. It is part of our humanity. We’re unfinished products. 

Shane and Denise both showed me overwhelming kindness, and they hold beliefs that are hurtful to other marginalized populations. Denise’s beliefs on education are conflictual. Her own son was aided by mandated educational requirements, yet she also believes certain mandated requirements should not be part of the curriculum. Shane told me how he struggled with his own beliefs on college debt. While he yearned for a life free from college loans, he believed he should get a part of Biden’s student debt relief but that those in similar positions shouldn’t.

If there is one thread that combines all of the columns I’ve written this year, it is that the everyday Saints among us are all internally plural. Some are radically conservative, interning with the Heritage Foundation this summer. Others are radically liberal, working at a commune. Some have probably had more sex than there are words on this page. Others have lived a life of celibacy. Some will make millions of dollars throughout their lifetimes. Others have taken vows of poverty. 

But, what fundamentally connects them all is a like-hearted love for others. Their hearts radiate care but share different thoughts on what it looks like to build the beloved community here on earth. Some whose opinions I might deem deplorable (or who might deem my own erosive) share common hopes and a common dream.

Shane and Denise give me hope, through chicken and fries, kind smiles and discussions that ranged all over the place. A national divorce or Blu-exit is not the solution to our problems. Silencing the opinions of those we disagree with or writing people off for their bigotry doesn’t solve one damn problem for one singular person. 

Writing off whole cohorts of people is not moral superiority, but idiocy. We are all internally plural and are strengthened through communing with those we disagree with.

Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, peace studies, philosophy, and gender studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS wants to chat and can be reached at @danesherm on twitter or

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.