While hostilities at UC Irvine continue to manifest between College Republicans and Democrats leading up to the 2016 Presidential election, a years long friendship between two political polar opposites at UCI is proving that warring ideologies can find common ground.
President of College Republicans at UCI, Ariana Rowlands, and Aya Labanieh, a Muslim Democrat, are famous for their Facebook disagreements on each other’s walls and UCI’s Transpolitical Forum page. The friends argue about various issues, from moral beliefs, to political candidates, to the nature of campus protests. Aya and Ariana even participated in a series of campus political debates on opposing sides last year, with Aya representing BernEaters and Ariana representing College Republicans.
We sat down with them in June 2016 to talk about politics and identity, friendship and adversity, and how to be a model for ideological tolerance and respect in an especially polarized election year.
How did you meet?
Ariana: We were in a math class together freshman year, and we both ended up going to a lot of office hours. Aya because she’s a really good student, and me because I suck at math. Math is the bane of my existence,so I went there in an effort to try to actually pass. We really bonded over our sense of humor, I would say.
Aya: Really bad math puns. Like really bad, approaching infinity to the left, stuff like that. Whatever math concept we learned one day, we’d go to the office hours the next day and there would be a lot of jokes, and it was perfect.
Ariana: The jokes did not help with my memorization of the content, though, I’m sad to report.
What’s your major?
Ariana: I’m a business information management major. It’s very difficult! I like the computer science part of it.
Aya: I’m a philosophy, French and comparative literature triple-major.
Ariana: Like I said, she’s a genius. And then there’s me; I’m like, ‘Hello, I want to learn how to calculus. How do you do that?’
On Facebook, you guys always seem to disagree with each other over political posts. What are the worst disagreements you guys have had?
Ariana: Our disagreements are famous. Random people who I hardly talk to will come up to me and tell me ‘Your Facebook fights with Aya are the best!’ I’ll be talking to someone in my club about ‘one of my friends,’ and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, Aya?’ and I’m like ‘How do you know who that is?’
Aya: Yeah, once when I attended a small event, a gathering of people from all of the political clubs [at UCI], one of the people from the Republican Club knew me, like ‘Oh my God, are you Aya? From Facebook?’ So we are famous, in some respect; everyone sees our conversations, and we tend to maintain a civil discourse, even if we disagree, no one’s going to devolve into saying, you know, ‘you’re a disgusting asshole’ and all those –
Ariana: You are a mess, Aya! I wake up every morning, every afternoon and night, and I tell myself, ‘Aya is a mess!’
Aya: …So, anyway, we maintain that civility, and I think it’s really beneficial, because if you disagree with someone who you care about, but you let that destroy your relationship, can you really have a relationship with anyone you disagree with? Or do you end up in the same homogenous group of everyone with the same opinions, and you devolve into groupthink, because you’re just polarized? Everyone’s the same so you just get more and more left, or more and more right. I think that’s a problem.
Ariana: And that’s definitely what’s happening in our political system on a national scale – nobody wants to work with each other so nothing gets done. The Democrats don’t want to work with the Republicans, and the Republicans don’t want to work with the Democrats, and if they do, suddenly everyone on their own side is like, ‘How dare you?’ So there’s censure from every side working with the other side, and I think that’s actually ridiculous, because you can’t be all ‘my way or the highway.’ There has to be some compromise to get things done. Aya and I are part of the board of UCI’s Transpolitical Forum, and I don’t want to sound like Donald Trump here, but you really do have to get along with everybody to get things done.
Aya: What happens a lot too is, if we have a discussion or disagreement and there are other people involved, it would devolve into that kind of name-calling and one party would block the other. So [Ariana] has lost a lot of friends, because they’ve un-friended her or blocked her on Facebook and removed her number. Just consider what that does to your [Facebook] timeline – that kind of filtering that makes you believe that the entire world does agree with you, that everyone does share your opinion, that troubling things from the other party don’t exist, that they’re some kind of myth when it actually does exist and you’re not doing anything to fight it because you can’t see it.
Ariana: It’s kind of a form of self-censure.
Aya: It’s a bubble, you’ve created your own echo-chamber.
Ariana: In order to develop your own educated and informed opinion, you need to be exposed to people who disagree with you, the other side –
Aya: Because then how are you going to refute their points?
Ariana: You can’t! And you might actually hear a point that you didn’t know, that completely changes your opinion on a stance. For example, Democrats are all for abortion all the way up until the day before you’re born, pretty much. Republicans’ party platform is no abortions ever, no exceptions. That’s two extremes of an opinion, so if you only hear those two extremes or you’re not exposed to much else, then you don’t think of the possibility of a compromise. So people nowadays will advocate for a three-months compromise, so up until then, you can have an abortion, which is much more reasonable than the alternatives. It’s something not everyone will be 100 percent happy with, but it’s better than fighting forever over two extremes.
Aya: The middle ground is never sexy. The moderate solution usually results in everyone disagreeing, but that’s how the world goes around. And you can’t reach a middle ground without having people talking to each other.
Ariana: And currently, our politicians don’t talk to each other.
Aya: That’s why we end up shutting down the government.
Ariana: Aya’s and my friendship is a good example for other people, because young people are going to be the future of this political system. Politically involved young people will make a difference in the political system, and we need to cooperate. I’m not saying to throw your principles out the window, I’m saying keep your principles, but keep in mind that there needs to be a pragmatic and realistic solution to problems, and problems do exist.
Aya: There’s also something else I’d like to add – consider people’s opinions that you don’t like as something that’s dirtying their soul rather than making up their soul. Say, if someone has an opinion that’s bad, or a terrible belief or racist belief, this is something that is on them that you can maybe remove, it’s not part of their makeup. It’s not an element of them. I think that helps you be able to love them or care about them rather than if you believed that this person in fact was evil, that that’s part of their ontology, then you won’t be able to care about them. So once you get past the belief that people with an opposite opinion are vile or villainous, then you can grow to love that person in spite of what you see as soiling their good name. That’s my take on it.
Have either of you changed the other’s opinion on anything?
Ariana: I do think I’ve been made more sympathetic to certain causes, because I do understand the other side and where they’re coming from on really important issues. But at the same time, the things I believe that made me have my stance in the first place, I still believe. I feel awful for a lot of people out there who are suffering, but at the same time, there’s another reason why, whether economic reasons or safety reasons, I just have to support what I support. The world is not full of happy choices. There’s always going to be a consequence you don’t like. What I think defines a true leader is their ability to make good choices.
Aya: Perhaps prior to meeting Ariana and prior to engaging with all her friends who share a lot of her opinions, I might have just thought of these people who were doing this out of malice. They had these beliefs out of hatred and out of who they were. But once you get to know them, even if your perspective doesn’t shift, you realize there are reasons behind these things. In their judgement and their thought process and whatever there is that got them there, there was a process that it wasn’t just hate. It wasn’t just a kind of trigger that made them this way. They had a coherent rationalization. Logic can be done and undone, unlike blatant hatred. And it makes you humanize the other person.
Do you think it’s worthwhile to change someone’s mind or should we accept a person’s beliefs for who they are?
Ariana: Depends on the person. There are some people who you can change their perceptions, but others who are too rock-hard. It’s not worth it. I have to delegate a lot of time to certain things. I have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of effort I can put into each project that I have. Some people just take up too much effort and too much time that I don’t think it’s worth the reward.
Aya: I defer on that point. I think there’s always a chance to get your viewpoint out there and try to convince the person. Maybe change their mind. Perhaps you never will, but at least you tried. At least the effort was there. Even in normal communication, we cannot get our opinions across because everyone has their own subjectivity, everyone is their own mind. There’s a really nice quote from David Foster Wallace from The Pale King where he says, “It’s horrifying that I can have all this inside me, but to you it’s just words.” That’s what it is. That’s what human interaction is. It’s just words. You can’t really put into sentences what’s inside of you, but you continuously try by approximation. You get as close as you possibly can. It’s the same way as convincing someone. Perhaps you’ll never undo what has been done. Perhaps you’ll never change their mind, but you’ll get closer and closer and closer. You alter a little bit about their perspective. Maybe there is a small pocket in them reserved for the words you said.
How have your communities reacted to your friendship?
Ariana: I think it’s been largely a positive thing. I think the basis of our friendship, and the effects of our friendship have definitely made me more open to working with the other ideologies out there, like the Young Americans for Liberty, the Berneaters and the College Democrats. Our friendship was a vital part of the creation and success of the Transpolitical Forum. There’s always going to be opportunists out there who are going to say ‘Oh look, she’s friends with a liberal, she must be a liberal.’ If you look beyond that, you’ll find that’s not true. I think that’s a great testament to both of our characters that we’re able to overcome ideological differences which not a lot of people these days try or want to. We have a great friendship and talk every day.
Aya: You alluded to this a bit earlier. Someone out there who’s not a pleasant character takes this and runs with it. We did have people from the Republican side, I’m not sure if they were even from UCI, but saying [that because of our friendship], that Ariana is a liberal, a ‘PC princess.’ Making a meme out of me and her in one of our pictures together. I was really depressed about that because they didn’t know who I was, whether I was a Bernie supporter. It was just my scarf.
Ariana: They went through my pictures and found one of me and her that I uploaded and made a meme out of it. They don’t know her, it’s just her scarf.
Aya: From my side there have been those who are really passionate about what they believe in and it blinds them a lot to reality, and so they’ve said things like ‘you’re just throwing your principles out the window, you’re supporting all these things that you claim to abhor by being in this friendship,’ which I think is preposterous; it’s guilt by association. It just doesn’t make any sense. You shouldn’t be guilty because of being friends with someone. You’re friends with someone in spite of having differences in belief. We do fight about these things, but we still remain friends.