Has election season always been this rough on friendships?
Friendships and families are actually too precious to throw away for transient reasons.
So many people I know are getting into Facebook fights, Twitter wars, Instagram arguments, and Snapchat squabbles. What begins as an ideological dispute ends in bitterness. People are provoking others, demanding those who do or don’t support their candidate leave their networks, cutting ties with friends and family, and all because of political differences.
I can’t even imagine what the Thanksgiving table will be like this year!
People perceive the stakes this year to be that high. To be sure, political philosophy does matter and does carry high stakes. However, the partisan struggle for the control of the state apparatus by this or that temporary manager doesn’t matter as much as election season seems to suggest. You might be being manipulated, and friendships and families are actually too precious to throw away for transient reasons.
It’s a pity to cause permanent rifts, and so unnecessary. The people who rearrange their personal relationships for the election imagine that they are taking control of their lives. They don’t seem to realize that they are actually letting strangers control their lives – strangers who care nothing for them in a system that actually seeks to divide people so it can conquer them. To permit politics to fundamentally alter something so important as friendship is to give politicians more importance than they deserve.
Trolling and Banning
Now, of course there is a proviso here. If there is someone in your network who is deliberately trolling you, harassing you, and goading you to respond, the best possible response is to block them. Not talk back. Not engage in a tit for tat. Just quietly block, without drama or announcement, much less denunciation.
Most public people I know have blocked as many as one hundred plus people over the past year, simply because this election season has been so contentious, with the alt-right and alt-left (who oddly agree on so much) battling it out on social media. Blocking is the far better path than engaging them. Vicious back and forths on the Internet can be life-consuming and draining. People who are trying to do that to you deserve exclusion from your conversation circle.
Apart from these cases, it strikes me as pointless to hurl someone out of your life because of political differences.
First, by denying yourself access to different points of view, you risk isolating yourself from a critic who might teach you something you need to know, maybe about anything in life, but maybe even about politics.
Second, talking to people with different opinions keeps you making sense and speaking in a civil way, addressing others in a way that could persuade them.
Third, and most critically, to isolate yourself, hate others for their views, and regard people with different points of view as less deserving of dignified treatment, plays into exactly what the political system wants for you to do.
But Aren’t They Aggressors?
A counter to my point was offered by a friend of mine last year. Speaking as a libertarian, he said, he regards anyone who supports some government action – even just casually and without much thought – as wittingly or unwittingly contributing to an opinion culture that supports rising political violence. The only friends he believes deserve the time of day from him must hold steadfastly to his voluntarist perspective, else he regards them as a direct threat to his life and liberty.
Now, this strikes me as vastly too severe. The truth is that most people who support some government action do not regard themselves as violent people. They believe that they are favoring something that is good for others, perhaps fostering the better life for the community.
For example, if a person favors higher spending on public education, they believe that they are pushing for policies that are good for others, not calling for violence against taxpayers to support unworkable programs. How can you possibly persuade them otherwise if you cut off all ties?
And it’s not just libertarians who can be this way. A good friend of mine was a casual lefty and, like most from his tribe, he was dead serious about the issue of climate change. I had no idea until the subject came up over coffee. I expressed some doubt that the science was truly settled concerning all causes and effects, solutions, costs and benefits, and so on. I was actually very measured in my comments, but somehow they caused him to blow up, call me a science-denying, tin-foil-hat-wearing capitalist apologist, and then actually leave the conversation. And that was it.
The politics of identity is causing precisely these sorts of irrational and pointless splits among us.
I was stunned. I was merely disagreeing with him, however cautiously. But somehow, he had come to believe that anyone who disagreed with him bears some responsibility for the rising sea levels, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the gradual disintegration of the planet, even though I’ve written very little on the topic at all.
He was letting politics control his life and even determine his friendships. Both of us are spiritually poorer as a result of this friendship loss.
And consider the toxic effect the rising politics of personal identity – on the left and the right – are having on the ability of people to find value in each other. Imagine how you would make me feel if you believed my whiteness represents a continuing stain on the world order. There is no chance for any kind of engagement; after all, I cannot change my race. Or what if I believe your blackness or gayness or atheism or whatever is leading to demographic or cultural destruction – how can we possibly be civil to each other? The politics of identity is causing precisely these sorts of irrational and pointless splits among us.
What Is the Point of Friendship?
What the libertarian and the lefty I mentioned above do not realize is that they are guilty of the same error of allowing politics to invade the conduct of their lives and determine the conditions of their personal happiness. Once this kind of thing starts, there is truly no end to it.
Must everyone agree with you on every jot and tittle of your ideology to be your friend? Must there be zero tolerance for even the slightest difference in outlook, priority, application, and goal of your particular political outlook? In other words, must all your friends believe exactly as you believe?
If this is your perspective, you might consider: there is not much point to being friends and engaging in conversation with someone who has the exact same view on all things that you have. It seems rather boring. Might as well stay home and reflect on your own infallibility.
If we long for a better world of mutual understanding and peace, one way to help achieve it is to live as if it already exists.
I like to think of friendship much the way we think of economic exchange. In economics, goods and services do not exchange in the presence of perfect sameness. They exchange because each party to the exchange believes himself or herself will be better off than he or she was before the exchange. It is only in the presence of unequal expectations that exchange becomes mutually rewarding.
It is the same with friendship. We need to hear different points of view. We need the insights of others. Even if we don’t accept them in total, we can still hope to understand people and the world better by considering what others have to say – with sincerity, warmth, and honesty. In other words, friendships like this help us have an open mind and keep us all humble and teachable.
Candidates Will Betray You
Neither is it a good idea to give up a friendship based on loyalty to a particular candidate. The top two contenders for the presidency have held many different and conflicting views on a huge range of political issues, from taxation to immigration to war. These people are wired to be adaptable based on the polls. To follow one or the other all the way to the point that it affects your associations is to risk compromising your own intellectual integrity.
Neither is worth that.
One of the great tragedies of politics is that it can take people who in real life would be peaceful and loyal and loving friends and turn them into bitter enemies. I’m always struck by this when I see a political rally, with face offs between backers and protesters. What exactly is gained by this? If you put these same people in a shopping mall or movie theater or restaurant, they would have every reason to get along and no reason to be screaming obscenities at each other.
We should hold on to that realization. Each of us is a human being with feelings, hopes, dreams, and a vision of a life well-lived – every single person, regardless of race, religion, gender identity, or ideology. Politics should change nothing about that.
If we long for a better world of mutual understanding and peace, one way to help achieve it is to live as if it already exists. Above all, that means never letting politics get in the way of rewarding human relationships.
This article was originally published on FEE.org