An Uber Ride’s Lesson in Civil Discourse

A few weeks ago, I took an Uber from a student journalism event at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda to Claremont. Right as I got in the car, the driver struck me, and my editor, as…interesting. He was wearing a t-shirt reading “Trump 2020” across the front. He asked us if we were college students, and when we answered affirmatively, he laughed. “I bet you don’t like Trump then, huh?” 

I told him that, while I hadn’t been old enough to vote in the 2016 election, I had no intention of voting for Trump come 2020. I’ll admit, I expected him to start yelling at or insult me, but I was wrong. He didn’t lose his temper; he didn’t even raise his voice. He just asked me why.

That caught me off guard. By and large, I’m a liberal Democrat, and while I have certain views that differ from the norm at a liberal arts college, having to explain exactly why I think Donald Trump is one of the worst presidents in history is not something I’m used to—it’s a pretty common view at the Claremont Colleges, after all. Still, I recovered quickly, and I think I responded with something along the lines of “I think a lot of his policies are going to devastate the country in the long-term.”

“Which ones?” he asked. 

I thought for a moment. “Well, for instance, Trump recently pulled $3.6 billion of already-allocated funds from military construction projects to fund 300 miles of wall along a 2,000 mile border. That seems like a gross misuse of money that’s already been promised to other, more important military projects.”

I was kind of hoping that argument would shut him up; I wasn’t really in the mood for a long debate. But the driver came back at me with another surprise. “I was a veteran,” he said. “And I can tell you, the military would have blown that money testing million-dollar Tomahawks pretty quickly. I think the border wall is more important for our national security than any of the other projects that money could have gone to.”

That was a surprise. “Really? You think it’s more important that we keep immigrants out than that we support our troops at bases in the States and abroad? Why?”

“Well, I want them to come here legally, like my wife did. But it’s the drugs, not the people, I’m really worried about.”

None of that made any sense to me. I’m convinced that keeping the US an active player on the world stage is a better guarantee of national security than building up border defenses. But some of what he said interested me. After all, he wasn’t the type of man I’d think of as having an immigrant wife. And the point about drugs caught my attention, too. It gave me some indication of where his priorities lay. As of February, 49% of Americans see drug addiction as one of the top issues facing the country. For my part, I definitely see it as an important issue, but my priorities lie more in the areas of climate change and political polarization rather than on drug addiction. I asked him some more questions about it, and he responded accordingly. None of what he said convinced me, but I was struck by how uncontentious my discussion with him was turning out to be. In my experience, political discourse usually gets heated quickly—especially in a college environment—and particularly when neither side can find any common ground. But so far, aside from some loaded comments about “Javier”—his go-to example for undocumented immigrants receiving welfare—our conversation had stayed civil, even pleasant.

Eventually, we moved on from drugs and started talking about Trump’s climate change policies (or lack thereof). This issue is one of the most important our country faces today, and I’ve been dissatisfied with the current administration’s handling of the problem. The driver held the opposite opinion. He didn’t quite refer to climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” but he did argue that it was just another avenue for liberals to “unfairly” attack President Trump. Naturally, I couldn’t quite grasp how he could legitimately believe that in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, and I was prepared for our debate to devolve into name-calling and shouting. But once again, I was surprised by how reasonably this guy was presenting views I so fundamentally opposed. He never raised his voice, he never insulted me, and he always waited until I was finished talking to make a counterpoint. Once again, I disagreed with everything he was saying, and given the importance of the issue in question, think his views have no place in government. But still, I was amazed at the civility of our conversation. 

This was the pattern for the rest of the forty-five-minute drive. One of us would say something political, the other would disagree, and we would exchange contrasting points before moving onto the next topic. When we finally arrived on campus, the driver pulled over, unlocked the doors and turned to face us. As we were getting out, he said: “Hey, I really appreciate you guys being such good sports. I was expecting you to yell at me or start insulting me or something, and I was pleasantly surprised at how civil you guys were with me.”

“Honestly, I was worried about the same thing with you. Thanks for proving me wrong. I feel like I learned a lot from talking to you.” The driver nodded, wished us a good evening, and drove off. 

I’ve thought about this Uber ride a lot in the weeks since it happened. What was it that made that conversation different from most of the other political discussions I’ve had, at home in Seattle and here in Claremont? I’m still not entirely sure, but I think I have an idea. I think what I appreciated most about talking with this guy was his recognition that despite my views, I’m an individual, not just a part of some collective. The fact that I believe in immigration and climate change doesn’t make me a communist, and the fact that he believes in a border wall and fossil fuels doesn’t make him a Nazi. I’ve always been a big believer in individualism, and it’s important to me that, if people identify themselves with a group, they do so because they genuinely agree with that group’s stances, not just because it’s a convenient label to apply to themselves. This Uber driver knew so much more than I did about Obama-era immigration policies; they might know something you don’t. Likewise, I think it’s essential that people recognize others as the individuals they are, not as members of the group one might think their views should make them part of. Unless someone explicitly makes it clear that they’re affiliated with some larger organization, don’t assume they identify with it. Don’t apply labels to someone unless those labels clearly have to be applied. I know that’s a tall order; we as a species like to categorize things. It’s the way our brains work. But based on my experience with this guy, holding off on categorizing can turn a potentially-hostile interaction into a rewarding experience you’ll remember for a long time to come.

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