By Allie Long
I grew up in a world where dogma was the sole means of justification for behavior. We had all kinds of dogma that dictated all sorts of things: Religion, politics, cultural views of masculinity and femininity, career paths, etc. I grew to become extremely dogmatic in my political conservatism partially because of this environment. There is something comforting in the level of certainty that accompanies such a dogma, but my inability to see the world in shades of grey was my way of deluding myself into thinking I had everything figured out. I could not accept other points-of-view, and I grew to dislike people who disagreed with me. As I began to delve into poetry, however, I found that the inclusivity of poetry was fundamentally opposed to the exclusivity of my dogmatism. Instead of continuing to live in a state of cognitive dissonance, I decided to examine my ideological dogma with a fine-toothed comb. I was definitely not pleased with myself after the examination. So here is the piece meal story of how poetry helped me unlearn that dogma. I hope you are able to take something away from this experience.
Zooming In and Out
The plot of land your house or apartment sits on appears flat even though the earth is undoubtedly curved. What’s more, the fact that we exist and are able to analyze the conditions surrounding our existence makes it difficult to stomach the vastness of the Universe and its seeming indifference to our existence. Our existence is contingent on the Universe’s existence, but the opposite of this is certainly not true. So how the hell does this have anything to do with poetry? Well, John Donne once wrote “no man is an island,” and I tend to agree on some level. Of course, if you zoom in close enough, it’s easy to see yourself as an island. It’s easy to think the planet revolves around you. If you’re only testing a dogma’s effectiveness on yourself, well, you’re going to be blind to the bias in these results. As a personal example, I was a conservative Republican because when I zoomed in on just myself, my family, and my homogenous peer group, that dogma worked. I couldn’t understand why my attempts to widely apply this ideology were met with such hostility by those who were born into different circumstances than I was. The major fault here wasn’t even the ideology itself. It was my absolute and unequivocal adherence to it and desire to apply it to everyone’s life. My inability to “zoom out” and acknowledge the diversity of human life led me to the misguided belief that if I could just make people understand my point-of-view, they would be able to apply my dogma to their own lives. My plot of land appeared flat, and I could not look at the bigger picture to see humanity’s curvature. This is where John Donne’s words come into play. No man is an island because everyone’s ideology will eventually have some effect on someone else. If you adhere to any ideological dogma, you are in danger of hurting someone emotionally, mentally, or even physically because you essentially vilify the existence of people who do not adhere to the same precepts. Even if there is no ill-intent, any variation on the assertion that someone cannot experience fulfillment and acceptance in life unless they live by your ideological dogma will cause damage to that person.
This is an admission of guilt: It took reading about other people’s personal experiences through poetry for me to truly feel that their experiences were valid. Take, for instance, the new, pro-discrimination legislation in my home state of North Carolina. Four or five years ago, I would have supported that legislation because of religious and political dogma. It goes without saying that I am disgusted with my old self for her inability to empathize with anyone who differed from her version the norm. I do not excuse my old self’s beliefs, but when marginalized people are continually turned into statistics, it can be difficult to remember the faces behind those statistics. If your ideological dogma continually uses belittling language to address those outside the status quo, that can also dehumanize those marginalized people. It took actual stories of actual people for me to gain an emotional connection to those different from me. I remember some of the key works that helped me humanize all people: Danez Smith’s “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown,” Paul Muldoon’s “Meeting the British,” Jean Toomer’s poetic novel Cane, Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” and Nicole Blackman’s “Holy.” All of these poems (and one novel) moved me to tears because of the stories they told. They were stories of survival, strength, and recovery in the face of insurmountable odds. They were stories I had never heard told that way before. Poetry allows us to see that as humans, we have more in common than not. Bit by bit, my dogma was being unraveled by poetry’s cultivation of empathy in me. I wish I could have just been inherently empathetic to all people, but I am grateful that poetry was there when I needed something to help me grow.
A Change of Heart
Any sudden change in ideology is met with skepticism. The ideas you’ve been quietly contemplating for years change over time, but when you final become vocal about them, the decision will seem rash to others, especially to those who knew you as someone completely different. The people who have known me for a long time especially don’t understand what I mean when I say that poetry was the catalyst for these changes, but I like to think of poetry as a means of education. In my opinion, my poetic education was education in its purest form because I learned about the different aspects of the world from actual people who live or lived in them. There is no middleman in poetry, which is how I think of textbooks and lecture halls. Poetry allows us to be fully immersed in real people’s lives as told through their eyes. There’s no better way to learn than that. My political dogma acted like a middleman through which I screened the experiences of others. When I let poetry remove that filter, I was able to get a purer sense of the world and the people who inhabit it.
Most people would probably say my ideological change was for the good but certainly not everyone. I’ve had people say they’re proud of me. I’ve had people say they’re disappointed in me. The reactions run the full gamut, but I learned quickly to take each reaction in stride. Just like I cannot expect people to understand all the reasons for my ideological shift, I cannot expect to understand the complete set of reasons for their reaction to it. At the end of the day, I am more content and self-aware than I have ever been, and I know any attempt to undo what poetry has taught me is fueled by some sort of ideological dogma. I always remind myself that if other people want my fulfillment to be contingent on adherence to their worldview, then it is up to me to realize that their true desire isn’t for my fulfillment; it’s for my adherence no matter the emotional or mental cost. I found the best way to handle those situations is to thank them for their concern but to not let them stop me from moving ever forward. Believe what you want, but never let your beliefs become dogma.