Friday, September 9, 2016

Friendship and Politics

A Difficult Political Season

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This election cycle has been challenging for most of us, and is has been especially challenging for friendship. I cannot remember a year when our society was more polarized, or when emotions ran so high.

In this climate it has been difficult to be both politically transparent and maintain friendships without strain. We seek friendship for many reasons (more on this below) but the common threat is that we seek to give and receive something we value - whether good feelings, companionship, opportunity, or mutual respect.

Politics, however, can occasion dis-value. I supported Senator Sanders because I wanted to endorse his campaign against income inequality. Some longstanding friends condemned me harshly - as a male chauvinist, as a sucker supporting Trump because 'a vote for Sanders is a vote for Trump.' One friend asked me who I was supporting and when I said I was supporting Sanders, she said "THAT IS SO WRONG."  Such proclamations do not add value or enhance friendships.

How to Handle Political Difference in Friendship

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I agree with Jefferson. Our political, religious and philosophical differences need not interfere with our friendships - though they frequently do. In the old days -before Facebook - few people knew about our political views unless we choose to reveal them - for example, by placing political signs on our lawns.  And even then, while our neighbors could not avoid them our far flung friends didn't see them. We could maintain a low political profile at work and in those social circles marked by political diversity. Today this is somewhat more difficult. Many of us choose to express our political preferences on Facebook, and this opens us to scrutiny and possible attack from all of our FB friends - which may be almost everyone we know from all walks of life.

While there is room for disagreement here, I think that this greater political openness is on the whole a good thing. If we share only with the like-minded, and in closed fora, how can we avoid stereotyping and polarization? Henry David Thoreau said that we all owe our neighbors a full dose of ourselves. If we cannot indicate our own views and our differences, how can we enter into those conversations that help us refine our views and explore and resolve these differences  - the essence of democratic life?

That said, our differences can also readily give rise to impolite and unkind statements that disturb friendships.


 What guidelines may prevent these unhappy results?

We can learn something from Aristotle's division of friendships into those of amusement, utility and character. (I'll have more to say about these different kinds of friendships in a later post.)

Amusement. People with whom we have many differences can still be great friends. We can have great fun with them. There is no need to condemn folks just because they support Trump - or Clinton - or Cruz or Sanders.  If we meet up with people at the sports bar and form a bond based on a love for the local football team, we should simply expect wide differences in our political viewpoints and ways of expressing them.

Don't take such differences personally. Enjoy these social contacts for what they offer, and don't demand more. We know so little about most friends of amusement. We don't have a clue about what has shaped their views. We often lack the contexts to deepen our understandings. And that's just fine. Do we really want to sit down with fellow rowdy sports fans and explore political, religious or philosophical viewpoints? Not often! If these folks express themselves in an ugly manner  - if they harshly denigrate e.g., racial, religious or sexual minorities - we can simply step away. Otherwise, we can just enjoy whatever differences get expressed. We do not have to appoint ourselves as moralists of the sports bar. Why pour warm beer on a good time?

A lot of our friendships on FB are casual. We enjoy many of our interactions simply because they are amusing. Some surprise us by blossoming into something more. But casual facebook conversations can surprise us by turning into flame wars. Friends of friends of friends - or even just friends - can turn into trolls, monitoring our posts and making hostile comments. These add no value. Life is short.

My policy is to refrain from making disagreeable comments on other people's posts, and warn that I don't tolerate hostile personal comments on my page. A single hostile reply to or after such a warning and the exchange is deleted and the offending person blocked. I make exception for those I have known previously; I merely add them to my restricted list so that they won't see my subsequent posts.

Workplace, Digitization, Robot, Binary

Utility. We all have to interact with people in our organizations and professional networks. We need others to lift us up, to connect us to opportunities, to cooperate in shared activities. As we age, we also need people to lift up and assist and influence in positive ways.

Just because - in comparison with our fiends of amusement - we share a lot with such people, we are almost sure to discover small, even petty differences. It can be easier to accept vast differences with outsiders than minute ones with insiders. (It may be easier for progressives to empathize with working class attraction to Trump than support for Hillary Clinton - even if they plan to vote for Clinton). University departments are notorious for nasty divisions over differences outsiders can barely grasp.

Again, the best policy is to use useful friendships for what they offer, and not demand more. Stick to broad areas of agreement and sidestep minute but polarizing differences. Find positive things to admire. Remember that the basis of the relationship is mutual aid. We all need this. Don't jeopardize it over the small stuff.

Character.  Because politics is about achieving the common good, it is inevitably about values. Our values - our beliefs about what is good and what conduces to the good - are the bedrock of our characters. Nonetheless, character cannot be identified with political choices. Our political choices are greatly over-determined. We do not think our way to them; they reflect our underlying feelings, shaped by a lifetime of experience including those from early childhood. As Isaiah Berlin argued, there is a plurality of values - no one political camp or ideology has a hammerlock on the good. There are also villains in every camp. Don't mistake political agreement for integrity.

For friendships are based on character - on mutual respect based on integrity - we should be able to have respectful and even mutually enlightening conversations across differences. We are never positioned to teach our friends how to think and act. Indeed, significant differences can test and deepen friendships of character. We can discover that our friends place a higher value on openness, respect, politeness, curiosity, affection and the desire to grow and assist others in their growth than on being right and making others wrong.

Political differences can test our friendship. When our friends act out of character - for example, showing disrespect by 'teaching' us how to act and think - they introduce tensions into our friendship. It is unwise to respond in kind. Far better to step back, express in general terms (and in private) that as adults we should respect and not instruct, and then wait. There will be time enough for a thoughtful and mutually respectful conversation - though it may be after the election season is over. Time will heal and deepen true friendships of character.

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