Life in a Purple Suite

When I tell relatives that I share my suite with conservatives, they ask me the same question: “Why?” I answer that they’re my friends, that we lived together last year and that we enjoy each other’s company. But still, they stare at me with the same perplexed expressions. They come from liberal enclaves — Brooklyn and Los Angeles — where meeting a Republican is as rare as spotting a rusty pickup truck.

Last fall, I told my grandmother that I was placed into a suite with a conservative boy from Tennessee. She saw it as a great opportunity. She was sure that I could, and would, convince him to disavow his upbringing and join the liberal cause. Despite her confidence in my persuasive abilities, I was unsuccessful. When my suitemate and I engaged in political debate, we usually circled back to one of the few topics we did agree on, sparing ourselves the awkwardness of any confrontation. In the spring, I told my grandmother that I was again living with the same southern boy. This time, she was concerned that instead of me convincing him, it had gone the other way.

One might assume that living in a purple suite would encourage political discussions. But for us, it’s the opposite. We steer clear of meaningful political debate and limit ourselves to playful mocking of each other’s political correctness, or lack thereof. We hardly ever venture beyond these jokes, where our ideological differences would force us to make thornier judgments of character. So, despite our vast disagreements on health care, gun reform and taxes, we coexist peacefully. We worked together with screwdrivers and hammers to assemble our chairs and coffee table from an Ikea run we made during the first week of school. We have not moved one piece of furniture since. Our most heated debate so far has been over the use of an extension cord. But can we really count our amiable living situation as some sort of victory over partisanship? If our political diversity only stifles dialogue, then what lessons can we draw?

Two days before the election, I was sitting on our couch watching the Sunday morning news with my Republican suitemate. I asked him whether he thought the agreeability of our suite could provide a model of mutual respect for the rest of our country. He shook his head. “If America was filled with just you and me,” he said, “no one would ever talk about politics.” We both agreed that such a state would be impossible. And if we were forced to have serious political discourse in our suite, he grinned, “It wouldn’t be long before you guys kicked me out.”

So, instead of concluding that we have somehow defeated partisanship, perhaps we should acknowledge that, under different circumstances, we’d be divided just as most towns and cities are across America. A study released by the Pew Research Center in 2017 found that six in 10 Americans say that it is difficult and frustrating to talk to people whose opinions differ from their own on the topic of President Donald Trump. Maybe it is only the luxury of our own lives at Yale that allows us to put politics aside in our friendships. Many of the questions which bitterly divide our compatriots we can afford to leave unasked.

One of my suitemates, a staunch liberal, unloaded during Camp Yale a four-foot-tall framed portrait of Barack Obama. At first, it sat leaning against the wall of his single, but one afternoon a couple of weeks into school, I came back to find it perched on the mantle above our common room’s fireplace. I anticipated an argument between him and one of my Republican suitemates, but instead their response was as if nothing had changed. Did they not care? Did they know they would be outnumbered if they said anything? Or did they simply not want to start an argument? When I asked my conservative suitemate directly, he replied, “No, it doesn’t bother me. I think it’s funny.”

Aaron Kleiner | aaron.kleiner@yale.edu .

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