Friends and Political Difference in Polarized Times
How does political polarization affect friendship?
Good morning, I’m gonna do a little piece today, reflecting on Politics and Friends. I’m especially thinking about these matters and their relationship in the context of a highly and ever increasing polarization in contemporary society and in our culture these days. But first, a quick look at politics.
Politics itself exists on a spectrum between extremes, from most extreme on what might be called the Right, or the Conservative side, the Right wing. And most extreme, on the Left wing or might be called the Liberal side or Progressive side. There are the most extreme versions of each of these political leanings, and everything in between.
The first thing I’d like to do is recommend my theory or my point of view, that the spectrum between the extremes is actually circular, not linear, so that when you get to the extreme Right, or the extreme Left, these things become almost identical. And the mediating point between the extremes is actually where one can see most clearly, the differences.
When you get extreme Left, extreme Right, the behavior and the mentality and the approach to political and social life are so similar, that they’re almost indistinguishable. And the particular points of view which comprise this extremism is not especially important. They’re just random opinions that define a common behavior that is the behavior of extremists. When you get closer to the mediating center between political extremes, this is the point on a circle, in which the point of difference is most clearly marked.
The next thing I’d like to examine is not the full range on the political spectrum between the extremes, but each person’s personal range of what is the outermost Conservative position, and outermost Liberal or Progressive position outside of which the position is too far out there. It’s what you’d call outside, it’s not within the pale, it doesn’t seem sane that people outside of a certain particular level of being Conservative or Progressive or Liberal or Progressive, that their behavior becomes incomprehensible.
It doesn’t seem like sound or reasonable or sane positions. That’s when people start to use derogatory adjectives for positions held way out there on the extremes. So we have our own personal range in which one might describe, ‘Okay, I’m not a Conservative, I don’t agree with Conservative positions. But I don’t regard you as just outside the pale or off the reservation or not even sane in your view’.
So, these are the two ranges or two spectrums that we should ponder as I want to just point out a few aspects about the relationship between Politics and Friends. The next element I’d like to point out is that political reality itself changes. And as a result, my own political leanings also need to be responsive to developments and events that change. I’m trying to think of a random example. Say I’m politically moderate or politically progressive, in which I tend to lean toward positions that are more sociological or sensitive or yeah, a more sociological or social worker type approach to understanding the nature of crime is a better way to begin to reduce crime in, say, America. I’m just inventing what I think might be a position.
I believe that people with positions of law enforcement have an undue degree of authority and frequently act out. These institutions are characterized by racism, and so on and so forth. And as a result, or my politics lean toward the view that increasing resources for social work and for social care of people would be more effective in reducing crime than increasing commitment to policing. And so that might be my position.
But say, if I were living in a city in which I saw the effects of policies that move towards defunding police, or tying the hands of police, placing so many social legal restrictions on them, that they can’t do their job. And if as a result of that, I happen to live in a locale in which crime skyrocketed, that would mean that the reality changed around me. And so possibly, my political positions or leanings might also change.
So then, in addition to the spectrum, political reality itself, changes. I might have started out living in a safe neighborhood a year ago, which has become completely unsafe, and several people have been shot and killed just within a year in my own neighborhood. So, that means reality has changed, reality on the ground has changed. And then the other thing that happens is that people over the course of their lives themselves can change, not only necessarily impacted by sudden changes in your external circumstances, but just the development and evolution of your own thought as you mature.
So, we have the political spectrum, we have the kind of the range in which I can consider conversable, and then there’s positions outside of that. And the fact that two things themselves change, that is political and social environments and circumstances, and I, myself; my politics grow and develop and emerge and evolve.
Since I’m talking on this podcast about the relationship between friends and politics, the final thing, of course, is that the very same circumstances that I’m describing, characterize my friends, their political and social environments change, they themselves might change. And so in trying to examine what I’m going to do vis-a-vis the fact that I do have political opinions, and positions on society and culture. And I do have lifelong friends. All of these things are in sliding skills.
The older you become, the longer and deeper your friendships have the chance to be. If you’re 40, it’s possible to have a friend for 35 years or so. If you’re 60, it’s possible to have a friend for 55 years. This is an enormous period of time, in which you and another person have manifest the willingness to care and sacrifice for one another, to have gone through things together, to have gone through difficulties and come to understanding. The evolution and development of friendship is a very precious thing, and the longer and older it gets, the more and more valuable it becomes.
Even if a person you like greatly and resonate with greatly, if you’ve only known them for a short while and they suddenly fall out of your life, it’s painful, yes, but it’s not devastating. Whereas if you’ve had a friend for years, years, and years, and suddenly they’re gone for any reason, it can be terribly on decomposed, deconstruct, you know, it can take a lot out of us to lose an old friend.
So, in a time of polarization, what we’ve witnessed is that people have become very hasty to turn on long-established relationships, in the name of being bound to political views and political opinions. People especially described the Trump era as a time in which families broke down, people stopped talking to each other, people, ‘unfriended’ one another’. Possibly, the term ‘friend’ has been corrupted by making it into a verb and tying it to Facebook, which has nothing to do with the reality of friendship.
But people defriend one another. But beyond that superficial activity, they actually turn on friends. They’re unwilling or incapable of keeping old friends as the political polarization comes to characterize life in the world these days. The question is, is it ever reasonable or legitimate to abandon a friendship, especially an old friendship, because of political difference? And then you can extend that one step further; is it ever reasonable or legitimate to disrespect another human being because of political difference? These are some things we have to ponder.
I think one of the ways of getting to a good sound reflection on this question, or these two questions is, I think it’s helpful to introduce the differences between beliefs and actions. To simply hold political views is not a legitimate reason to either disrespect someone or to abandon a friend, because they believe differently than you. If as a result of their political views, they start to do things that you consider unconscionable, or wrong, in that people who are activists in arenas and positions as you disagree with, this we have to deal with in a mature way.
There is a line to cross, but I think we should not make that line close. I think it should be a distant line. So, there are times when you thought someone was your friend, and they’ve come to hold political or social cultural views in which they become activist and advocate and are active and their behavior starts to become behavior that you can’t stand by. If they become unwilling to engage you in your concerns about behavior, then, we’re in the threat of losing a fond relationship that’s been cultivated over years.
But I think merely holding views, I think it’s much wiser, to see if we can’t maintain our relationships, and our friendships with people even of extremely different views. A lot of people manage that by pretending the political differences don’t exist. They never talk politics with each other, they never talk real issues with one another, they just kind of play around or joke around and friendships or family relationships become, I don’t want to use the word ‘pejoratively’, they become somewhat superficial, they’re not touching in the areas of deepest concern. And then the value and benefit of friendship is not really being plumbed because the fear of extreme difference from one another will start to rethink that the friendship can’t survive if we, ‘go there’ or ‘bring up’ issues of extreme tension.
But to the degree possible, especially if we’re able to live in the position where merely holding beliefs that differ need not require actions to separate, it’s only when behaviors become unacceptable. This is an extreme example, please pardon the jolt to the imagination. But I think the name of the group is Naral, it believes that adult-child sexual behavior is a good thing or something like that, I can’t remember. I don’t even know if I have the name right.
But there are people that hold this as a philosophical point of view and analysis of society and culture and view of sexuality and things like that. To me, the prospect is troubling beyond words and horrific, horrific even to ponder momentarily. If a person holds this philosophically as a dimension of political science, and none of their behavior, they’re not acting on this in any way. It’s entirely different than if you discovered that a lifelong friend had suddenly become actually an activist in that area.
If they could no longer be open to being convinced otherwise from you, it would be, may well be or should be, necessary that I can’t remain in that relationship what they do. And they’re unwilling to ponder, being convinced by me otherwise, there’s no reason to maintain such relationship. But I’ve tried to produce an extreme example, that if it’s just a view held as abhorrent as it is, there’s nothing that compels the abandonment of a relationship of caring, as long as their behavior is not horrifying and perfectly unacceptable.
So, what I’m recommending in the long run, is that lifelong relationships, especially family relationships, but in this case, I’m talking primarily about friendships, to whatever extent possible, the friendship should always win. The prospect to abandon a friend, a true friend, over political points of view, should be unthinkable. It’s too valuable, especially as you grow older, you don’t have those years to make [new friends] left anymore, you can’t have a friend of 40 years or 50 years anymore. You can make new friends and that’s a kind of a way of getting through life. It’s exciting and titillating and expands your horizons. It’s always new, novelty is always new.
And a lot of people who can’t maintain friendships go from excited new friend to excited new friend. There’s some value in that for sure. But old friends are tried and true and know you well. And we’re indebted to friends who have stood by us while we went through the various parts of our lives and various difficulties. We’re indebted. It should not be a light thing to abandon friends.
And so if we agree or if it’s the case, that friendship should trump difference, political difference, no matter how intensely or emotionally held, I’m not even going to go to the place of family, I’m just going to talk about friends here, should trump even extreme difference. And even just respect for other human beings should trump even extreme difference. People hold positions that are utterly incomprehensible to you. Even if you find them harmful, it’s legitimate to describe political positions as harmful, but people should not be treated with disrespect.
And so if these two things are higher in the scale of what’s important in life; friendship, family relations, treating human beings with respect, if they’re higher, then the question is simply to examine what must be cultivated, or what do we draw from, in order to keep true friendship and respect, in a higher position, able to win over the impulses and angers that arise when strong political positions are held? What do we draw from? How do we develop ourselves? What do we focus on? What are the qualities and aspects of a friendship that we seize upon and cultivate and mature in order to make sure that wins each time?
This is an important and valuable consideration. And it’s important and valuable to have the sense to distinguish A, between the value of a friendship and the value of intensely held political views. Distinguishing between those two things is very important. And then to decide upon or to recognize that friendship and the quality of treating human beings respectfully is a higher pursuit, than pursuing greater sophistication and greater understanding greater commitment to political points of view.
Finally, if those who agree with this notion, then it’s important to look and see and understand and identify what is it in human relations that we focus on and develop and cultivate in order to keep the capacity to have that withstand all impulses and emotions and commitments of difference. Alright, thanks a lot for listening. Talk to you again soon.