By Anna Laird Barto
Why should I need data and statistics to justify the basic humanity of 1.8 billion people?
By the time the waiter came to take our drink orders, K had asked if I’d ever been married and if I wanted kids. I admit there was something exhilarating about the directness, like a game of truth or dare.
K’s pupils were a little too black — too fixed somehow — making me wonder if he were on drugs, but perhaps it was just the contrast against his pale, grey irises. Other than the intensity of his stare, K looked just like his profile picture — tall, square-jawed, boasting a buzz cut and a tan.
By the time the waiter came back with our drinks, K had ascertained the length of my last relationship and whether I rented or owned.
“What about politics?” he asked. “Do you lean left or right?”
K held up his forearms like goal posts, in case he wasn’t being clear.
“Hillary or Trump?” I looked him dead between the goalposts and laughed.
K lowered his voice and leaned in closer. “You don’t know about the socialist plans he has for our country?”
“Socialist plans?” I repeated loudly. “You mean like equal access to healthcare and education? Hell yeah!”
K had no comeback. He must have though the s-bomb would resolve the conflict swiftly and decisively in his favor, and now he was stuck without exit strategy.
I looked down the barrel of his black pupils. “Are you a Trump supporter?” I asked.
He blinked. “I’m a Conservative Republican.”
“That’s not the same thing. Not all conservative Republicans support Trump.”
“I support a lot of what Trump’s trying to do,” he said, “but I get frustrated with all the red tape.”
“I know,” I said sweetly. “You can’t just tweet and make it so — thank God!”Just then the poor waiter returned in hopes of a dinner order.
“I’m ready,” K said.
“Cheater, you must’ve read the menu online before we got here.” I’d barely glanced at the thing.
“No, I’m just good at making decisions. I know what I want.”
I felt him watching smugly as I perused the menu, which had suddenly come to signify my every life choice. My exes flashed before my eyes:
Pasture-raised New England beefcake, roasted over spent uranium fuel rods from the decommissioned nuclear power plant, then smothered in Grade A maple syrup and topped with organic jealous greens.
Free-range Coque au Mexique, raised on a diet of GMO-free corn, Saturday morning cartoons, and ’90s sitcoms, with just a savory hint of macho seasoning.
Wild-caught south shore man-child, marinated in academia until soft and flaky, served over a cannabis and Adderall comfit.
After the waiter finally made off with my order of Gorgonzola and sweet potato ravioli (analyze that) I tried to steer the conversation back to safer waters. I asked about K’s travels: Zion National Park, I’ve been there too! Bryce Canyon, beautiful, isn’t it? Colorado, great hiking! Afghanistan, Syria, umm…
His OkCupid profile hadn’t mentioned military service. Unfortunately, the subject of Syria lead us to the subject of refugees, which led us to the subject of immigration, the political issue with which I’m most personally involved.
“You think ICE is actually separating families?” K asked. “Or you’re just afraid of that happening?” (This was a few weeks before we awoke to images of ICE agents ripping children from their parents’ arms.)
I slapped my hand on the table. “It’s happening alright! Three blocks from here, there is a woman living in a church basement to avoid being deported and separated from her American-born children. She’s afraid of being sent back to Russia where she faces persecution because of her sexual orientation.”
“Wait, she’s a lesbian and she has children? I’m still confused how that works…”
I sighed. Loudly. “It works, okay?” Now was not the time to educate a 38-year-old man about the birds, the bees, and the butterflies.
I plowed on with the story of Irida Kakhtiranova and launched into that of Lucio Perez, the heteronormative father of four from Guatemala, who has sought sanctuary in another local church since October. I’ve gotten to know the Perez family personally through my volunteer work with immigrants’ rights groups. K nodded sympathetically as I described the emotional and financial toll on the family.
Now was not the time to educate a 38-year-old man about the birds, the bees, and the butterflies.
“I still don’t think Muslims should be allowed in this country.”
He said it so casually I thought I’d misheard.
“In my experience, all Muslims want to kill us.”
Suddenly the waiter swooped in with our plates. I stared at the little pile of limp gluten before me. My mind raced. Should I just walk out? Throw my food in his face? My shoe? Could I even get it off in time? Why didn’t I wear slip-ons instead of lace-up boots?
Here was my big chance to stand in solidarity with my Muslim friends and neighbors, but something deep inside me resisted making a scene.
Partly it had to do with being an introvert. It’s also not easy to go against generations of social conditioning that make accommodating men and their opinions, no matter how unacceptable, almost second nature. And if I did call K what he was — a bigoted Islamophobe — I could be labeled hysterical, or a snowflake. A hysterical snowflake.
I took a deep breath. I was too upset to muster my most logical arguments (more crimes are committed against Muslim immigrants than by Muslim immigrants; high-skilled tech workers will go to China instead). But why should I need data and statistics to justify the basic humanity of 1.8 billion people?
“All Muslims?” I said. “Every single man, woman, and child? You can’t say that. You just can’t.”
“When I was over there, even the kids wanted to kill us.”
“That was war. You were occupying their land. Of course they wanted to kill you.”
“I’ve read the Quran,” he said. (And yet he obviously didn’t make it all the way through my OkCupid profile). “Mohamed was not a peaceful guy.”
K calmly munched his steak tips and scallops, while I ranted about religious interpretation.
“You just can’t make blanket statements about an entire of religious or ethnic group. You just can’t. How do you like it when people make sweeping generalizations about Christians? About people in the military?”
To my surprise he set down his fork.
“You’re right,” he said. “You can’t.” A couple of mouthfuls later, “You’ve given me a new perspective.”
I paused and met his eyes. Was he just saying this to shut me up? I’ll never know why he uttered those five words, but it allowed us to get through the rest of dinner quickly and peacefully and part with a firm handshake.
Just how did I end up here? Nothing in K’s online profile hinted at such extreme views. He was the right age, fit, attractive, enjoyed travel and the outdoors; he loved dogs and children.
He did mention that he had “high standards” — “too high,” according to friends — but haven’t we all heard that if we are still single over 30, let alone 35?
And if K had such high standards, why did he offer to drive a hundred miles from northwest Connecticut, to Northampton, Massachusetts of all places — the western outpost of the liberal elite empire — to meet a woman whose only qualifying characteristics were age, availability, and attractiveness?
Nothing in K’s online profile hinted at such extreme views.
If he had dug just a little into my profile he would have more-than-discovered my political leanings, or at least inferred it based on other information. I’m sure they’re out there, but I have yet to meet an MFA in Creative Writing, or a human service worker, who is a Trump supporter.
But in truth, if K pegged me based on education, profession, and place of residence, he would have been engaging in the same kind of gross generalizations I’d just called him out for.
Recent, compelling — but not shocking — research by Yale Professor Gregory Huber and Neil Malhotra of Stanford show that shared political beliefs factor significantly in our choice of romantic partners. And according to the authors of a 2013 study entitled,“The Dating Preferences of Liberals and Conservatives,” online dating contributes to America’s polarization by making it easier to sort partners by political affiliation.
If I remember correctly, earlier versions of OkCupid listed members’ political affiliation in a sidebar with other basic stats like age, height, education, and astrological sign. Maybe now you have to pay $29.99 a month to find out if you match a Scorpio or a xenophobe?
Malhotra and Stanford colleague Robert Willer argue — check out the TED talk — that the danger of this kind of unnatural selection breeds “ideological silos.” Without exposure to dissenting viewpoints, both sides become more extreme in their ideology.
This perspective makes me feel better about having stuck it out and attempting civil conversation with K. However, I also refuse to accept that religious pluralism is an extremist view. It’s one thing to debate democratic socialism over the dinner table, but it’s quite another to call into question respect for basic human rights.
I noticed that K ordered steak tip and scallop salad — the first item on the menu. Maybe the problem wasn’t high standards, but a failure to appreciate the full range of options, in life and in love.