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Diverse Conformity

Diverse Conformity
Published on Apr 11, 2024.

Stanford trumpets its diversity. It makes sure everyone know how diverse its student body is – at least along racial lines. White students are less than 50% of the student body. Asians are 20%. Hispanic students are 30%. International students are another 25% on their own.

But the diversity only goes skin-deep.

All the kids at Stanford looked different, but they thought very similarly. Somehow, even though they came from all walks of life, and all corners of the world, even though they'd never met before, they had all somehow arrived at the same ideas, the same beliefs, the same way of thinking.

My freshman year, that fall, California was thrown into a political crisis. The then-governer, Jerry Brown, had been recalled by a popular petition. This was the kind of chaos that California's popular democracy allowed. If you could get enough signatures on a piece of paper, you could lop off the head of the state.

That threw the race wide open to a hodgepodge of contenders. There was a porn star who ran. A midget. Some total of 15,000 people cast their name in the hat. The man who won, of course, was an actor from Hollywood. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He wasn't the first celebrity to turn politician, nor was he the last, but at the time he was the biggest. There was Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, but California, as the largest and richest state, was a much bigger prize.

When Arnold won, Stanford erupted in spasms of disbelief and incredulity. Many kids outright said they couldn't understand the "stupidity" of the voters. "How could they do this? Why would we let them?" My friend Peter ended conversations by imitating a common voter. In a poor Austrian accent, he'd say: "He's the governator. You must vote for him. Asta la vista, baby."

The way they talked about it, the way they made fun of people for the way they voted, really bothered me. I was new to California politics. I didn't understand why the governor was recalled, or why people voted for someone who was a complete outsider. But I didn't think all those people who voted were idiots. Most of them had been living in California their entire lives. They had more experience with the state and its politics than me, or most of my Stanford classmates, who had just parachuted in a few weeks ago. The least I could do was give them the benefit of the doubt, that in their own home state, they might know what's going on a little better than the rest of us.

It was after dinner one day, when I walked pas a dorm room where a bunch of students were handing out and talking about the election. The door was open, and I stood there listening for a while.

One after another, like a litany of church goers working down the pew, they expressed their absolute incredulity at what had happened. "How are people so stupid they'd vote for an actor? An actor?? What does he know about politics?" "People will just vote for someone because they recognize the name. They're really dumb."

As I listened, it started grating on me. I thought about all those people out there, who had taken the time out of their lives to go cast a vote. Something drove them to do it. Something that meant more than the little thrill of seeing a celebrity's name. Sure, most of them couldn't do calculus and would get clobbered by the SAT, but the way someone votes isn't an academic question. It's about life experiences and worldviews. You can disagree with them, but don't ridicule them. Don't minimize. Don't disregard. That's just insulting.

I guess it bothered me because I grew up with the kind of people the kids around me were talking about. Neighbors and teachers flashed past me. I thought of the guy who lived down the block where I grew up. I used to play basketball with his kids, and sometimes he would show up and drain 3s. He had a big John Deere lawnmower to cut the grass on a tiny lawn. It was ridiculous, the kind of thing these kids would easily make fun of, but he loved the damn thing. Maybe he would have voted for Arnold. I could see that.

I'd met a lot of uneducated people in my life, and I'd met a fair number of stupid ones too. The two didn't really always go hand in hand. Some of the dumbest people I'd met had fancy pedigrees and advanced degrees. They were bumbling idiots who could dazzle their way through an office meeting, but really made very little sense outside of that room of smoke and mirrors.

Back in that dorm room, I felt I had to say something. I had to stand up for the people I knew. I cleared my throat, and everyone looked at me. "There could be good reasons that people voted for him," I said.

There was silence for a second, before someone prodded me forward. "Like what?"

I'd read about the budget crisis California was facing, so I suggested that maybe people wanted more fiscal discipline. There was some nervous shuffling. People looked at each other, and then looked away. Later in life, I would come to know what they were thinking. He looks like one of us, and he's smart like one of us, but is he actually...one of them?

Up to that point, I had never thought of myself as a conservative or a liberal. Frankly, I just didn't like labels. I still don't. They come with all these stipulations. Now just because you believe one thing, you're identified with a label, and you have to believe all these other, unrelated things too.

I like to think of myself as an independent thinker, willing to question anything and adopt any idea that made sense to me. What I remained most fearful of wasn't the "other side" but the kind of unquestioning loyalty to a party or an ideology that makes you blind to the truth. You confuse the two – instead of chasing truth you chase purity.

After I said my piece, the friendly dorm room banter descended into a pile-on. The more I defended the viability of alternate viewpoints – the more I questioned whether things had really been working under the old governor ("why would so many people sign the petition to remove him?"..."well, it's easy to just sign a paper"..."then how come it hasn't happened to all the governors", or "why can't an outsider do a better job than a career politician?") – the more agitated people got. It was like they needed me to be wrong. I didn't need them to be wrong. I would've been OK having my mind changed. I couldn't understand why they were not willing to change theirs.

Looking back, I realize this was a brush with the desperate edge of groupthink. Where the argument is about not about the truth. It's about identity – about who you are and who is your tribe.