It's Not Just About Politics

Would you say you've lost friends because of this election?

That's an issue that keeps coming up on social media, and plenty of think pieces have already been written, lamenting the death of politics-free relationships and telling us that if we are losing friends we are "doing it wrong." One recent piece in the New York Times idealized the writer's 1950s-style neighborhood, where everyone is apparently aware that people hold differing views, but no one talks about it, so no one argues. 

I think it's worth asking ourselves who benefits from these attitudes, and who loses. Who was life great for during the 1950s, for example? And what does it actually say about me if I agree that, quoting one of the articles linked above, I wish I didn't "know that [my] nephew is a hard-core Trump fanboy?" I understand that we value differing opinions in this country, and that we are fiercely individualistic. Personal choices are paramount. But what about when those decisions affect other people? And not just their feelings or their preferences, but their livelihood? What if the political things you're avoiding discussing are vital to the personal things you know and love about your neighbors?

I have lost a couple of friends (and a relationship with at least one family member) during the course of this election. But just as in the past when a friend and I cut ties after a political or social issues disagreement, I can't point to the election as the actual cause. Disagreements and elections are flash points. They are storms that highlight and uncover weak spots. I can't pretend to speak for everyone, of course, but in my experience, and in the experience of most of my peers who have cut ties with people "over the election," the reasons are much more nuanced than "we disagree." I'll just share a bit of my own experience:

I have never "unfriended" someone simply because they align themselves with a different political ideology than I do. I have, however, unfriended someone who aligned themselves with a different political ideology and regularly sought me out to serve as a "token," to answer for all who share my views and defend them. After a while, I realized this person never seemed willing to interrogate her own beliefs, and she never seemed to want to talk to me about anything else. She was also very flippant about things that I find extremely important, and ignored my efforts to discuss these things more deeply. Why should I maintain this "friendship" just to avoid being called "closed-minded?" 

I have never "unfriended" someone simply because they disagreed with me about a social issue. I have, however, unfriended someone who argued with me for hours in private messages about basic facts related to various issues and made many comments that could not be described any other way than "blatantly racist." She lectured me about various things without allowing any disagreement, no matter how civil. Any suggestion that she consider a different view was met with defensiveness and accusations that I was insulting her intelligence. Ultimately, while trying to have a discussion about the respect we wished to have from one another, she declared that her respect for me came in the form of "not writing you off as a lost soul even though I think you are dead wrong." Should I have kept subjecting myself - and her - to that for the sake of appearing to be "open-minded?" 

Here's the thing. We need limits on how far we open our minds. We can't accept everything, right? We put limits on how much we will "take" from people in our personal lives all the time (or we should!) We put limits on what we will believe (at least most of us, I think!) We don't all draw those lines in the same places, but as a society, we have generally agreed to draw some of them, at least in pencil. We have agreed that slavery is bad, Jim Crow was bad and shouldn't be replicated, stealing is bad, murdering is bad, all individuals have rights, etc. There will be individuals who don't agree with these things, but generally, as a rule, we accept them in order to move forward. 

The thing about this election - this particular flash point, this particular storm - is that it is highlighting those individuals. It is giving a larger platform to people who believe that slavery is bad, but; Jim Crow was bad, except; all individuals have rights, unless. Some of this is about fear and misinformation. I've read all of the pieces humanizing Trump supporters; I understand that there are legitimate economic horror stories that have led some people his way. But this is not an ordinary election. Politics aside, the derogatory things Trump says about women, immigrants, Muslims and people of color are not part of our generally accepted agreements that help move society forward. When I bring this up, I am regularly reminded that it's "just words." All I can say in response is that it is not "just words" if you are a woman, an immigrant, a Muslim or a person of color. It is not "just words" when those words incite fear and violence, and when they inform actual policies that do actual harm to people.

I don't think life is better when we avoid talking about politics, because, as the old adage goes, politics is personal. Especially in a year like this, when the personal livelihoods of so many are at stake. I want to talk about these things with people who are different from me. I want to consider the skepticism of people who don't believe these things are true. I want to listen to their fears, their concerns, even their conspiracies. I want to take these things in and use them to keep building the ever-evolving context of this election, of this cultural moment, in my mind. I don't want to be a sounding board for slurs, logical fallacies, blatant untruths or manipulation. I don't want to entertain homophobia, transphobia, racism, or misogyny. I want the same respect and open-mindedness that is demanded of me. And that's where the break - when it comes to that - happens.

I understand that often, people I know will hold views that I believe are dangerous, and that they will disagree on that point. They will believe that what they believe is right and fair and OK. I accept that I have a responsibility to have conversations about these things with these people. For me at least, the unfriending happens when those conversations are not honest, when the other person insists that I self-reflect and learn but refuses to do it themselves, when they are combative, and when they belittle, condescend to, chastise and insult me. Those are not the qualities of a friend or relative with whom I can have a real relationship. That's not a closed mind - it's a healthy boundary. And it's a risk of talking openly about politics that seems worth taking.

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While I was in the middle of writing this post, I came across this similar piece on HuffPo that expresses my own feelings, with some exceptions. I hope I've been able to articulate those exceptions above.