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Coming back from lunch at the college writing lab where I work, I saw a small group of staff and students engaged in a vigorous discussion.
“Let’s ask, Karen. What do you think about net neutrality?”
Wow – really?!? This is a policy topic I am particularly interested in, and so I was eager to discuss it.
After talking about the basics of net neutrality and sharing my perspectives on it, the group seemed focused on the possible personal economic effects of a policy change, especially in our very rural area. However, I wanted to talk about the broader implications.
“It’s really about a lot more. It’s about who has a voice and who doesn’t. It’s about giving preference to advancing well-financed mainstream viewpoints and silencing more diverse and marginal voices.
“Think about when the media was just a few major network channels,” I said, realizing that the students around me weren’t even alive then. “Everything was controlled by a few mainstream broadcast networks, and we only heard the messages they wanted delivered. Then the Internet came. Suddenly, everyone had a voice. Now, we have things like Black Lives Matter and MoveOn.org. There’s a new world of independent music and movies. Individuals like you and me can write blogs, produce movies, and connect with others. It’s all about a diversity of creators and an open way to connect all of us.
“But if net neutrality is rescinded, a lot of that could be gone.”
I think this was a new perspective on net neutrality for the people I was talking with, but what was interesting was the way the conversation evolved after that.
We moved on to talk about the overall political situation in America right now and the trend toward corporate profits being prioritized over every day people’s interests.
“A lot of things are being done right now to cater to corporate interests while basically leaving people like you and me behind.”
I wasn’t pulling any punches, which was unusual for me in this setting.
We then went on to talk about social protest, racism, free speech, collective good, the downsides of capitalism, gun control, immigration, social justice, and what it means to have an open society.
My passion on these topics was obvious, and we had a thoughtful, intellectually stimulating conversation. This kind of dialogue is exactly the reason I enjoy working in education, and afterward I reflected on how rare these kinds of conversations are.
Personally, I have struggled mightily with these types of “political” conversations. I live in a community that is split between strong conservative and progressive viewpoints, and it has been difficult for me to find ways to bridge that. More often than not, I keep my views to myself in mixed political company. Often that leaves me feeling guilty and inauthentic, confused and despondent.
But today, I spoke confidently about issues important to me, and I think, to our country, all because of net neutrality.
I puzzled over why this situation seemed to free me up to be more expressive. It could have been my own confidence about the topic of net neutrality. More likely it was the apparent political neutrality of this topic. The fact that we weren’t talking specifically about race or immigration allowed me to pose opinions on these topics without directly confronting anyone else’s views. I was able to talk about racism as an obvious negative without disagreeing with someone else’s statements. I made a mental note to think about this approach the next time a potentially divisive topic came up.
The conversation ended with a question from a student who I had been talking to earlier about the importance of voting. He asked “What do you think will happen in the next presidential election?”
So far in the conversation, we had avoided talking about the current president by name, but with this question I saw that the student had made important connections and had perhaps thought in a new way about the role each of us plays in the bigger political context.
Each of us doing what we can is all anyone can ask.
Karen Fasimpaur is a writer and online organizer; she also does communications work for the National Rural Assembly. (Disclosure: The National Rural Assembly is managed by the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.)