In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about any one else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history… That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts.C.S. Lewis
“When did this become a thing?” I asked myself indignantly. I’d always hoped that as we Gen Xers progress through life, we would grow out of our myopic high school cliques. In high school and even long before, I was appalled at the cruelty kids could show those who were unlike themselves. To be accepted by the cliques, you had to conform, and that often meant dialing down your empathy to outsiders to fit in.
The obvious answer is that it’s always been a thing. The thing being to ostracize, mock, and isolate ourselves from those who are different than us. We find it safer, simpler, easier to coexist with people who look like, act like, believe like ourselves than who have different hair, different brands of clothing, different politics.
In the 2010s there was a disturbing resurgence of high school politics amongst adults. We argued about who started it, with both sides pointing their fingers at each others’ leaders and actions. Now, locally at least, it’s in vogue to treat those of different belief systems as lesser. Simply saying that someone is different from us doesn’t suffice; we might now consider them inferior, as if their faith choices or party preferences make them a substandard hominid.
Those who know me personally know that I have strong views on topics like faith and politics– and there are times when I come down like a thunderbolt on matters of principle. That is the glory of the First Amendment and a free country, that we have the precious right to speak openly and publicly. My beliefs come from a lifetime of hard knocks and a desire to see people unchained from governance, philosophies, and ideologies that limit their autonomy and identity.
Friends know this about me and respect my freedom to do so. They know they are free to disagree. They are aware that my loyalty to them does not depend on their approval of my ballot or latest blog post. I can treat them with respect even when their views are the polar opposite of mine. If the friendship no longer works, we are free to move along. You win some, you lose some, yet those who stick around are generally the ones you’re the most authentic with.
In matters of love, it is imperative that we find someone who shares our values. That is a separate conversation. But in matters of friendship, when in our adult lives, as we ripen and grey, did it become cool to disassociate from those who don’t share our political and religious views? It’s quite normal for our closest friends, the knights of our round table, to share some of our deepest beliefs. Yet why can’t we have friends who share our interests and not our faith or party?
This trend perplexes me. Some of my most cherished friends and family have very different beliefs than my own. We’ve been together too long, or been through too much together, to talk about politics and religion when we have precious time together. We may campaign for radically different candidates and might never set foot inside each others’ religion. We might have moral or ethical reasons for not supporting each others’ stuff. That “stuff” is not what our relationship’s about, though. We love each other as we are and stay off the contentious topics that could divide us. They understand that I’m outspoken about my “stuff” and I respect their right to be outspoken about theirs.
In the Seattle area, being of a certain political persuasion can result in stereotypes, assumptions, and just weird behavior. “Oh you’re one of those,” I’ve heard. I can be having a wonderful conversation, then the other person realizes I’m not necessarily in agreement with their preferred presidential candidate. Suddenly a hilarious and warm discussion becomes strained when I’m “outed.” I don’t see how that has anything to do with the commonalities we share or that it’s even relevant to the conversation. But it’s a thing, a measuring stick that judges our friendship compatibility quotient.
Similarly, there are times I’m deep in a jocular dialogue with those who are closer to my political beliefs, but then I’ll mention a cause I’m passionate about and lose them. Some of the causes I’m most involved with tend to be considered more “the others'” causes– such as animals and nature. Inwardly I’m thinking, “I’m sorry, why do I have to be exactly like you to be worth your time?” I never thought I’d see this dynamic escalate as I veer towards middle age. It’s like High School, Part Deux.
I love a good debate. Not an argument, but a reasoned, logical, articulate back and forth that fleshes out the fundamentals of an issue. I don’t mind intelligent debate with friends when the primary goal is to understand each other rather than change each others’ minds. However, when is the last time you saw a true Lincoln-Douglas exchange on a political stage? Instead, candidates attack each other personally– “moron!” “putz!” “bastard!”– rather than offering rational explanations of how they will try to fix current affairs. In like manner, we emulate this, attacking people personally instead of explaining our values and convictions. It’s spreading. It’s scary.
Why ostracizing those different from ourselves is so serious is that it could cause a new civil war. It’s certainly caused a social chasm in the Seattle area. This isn’t being a doomsayer, this is calling out the reality of what this growing problem could cost us. If we turn on our family and friends for not being our clones, we’re lost. If we cut off communication because someone doesn’t vote the same, we’ll become even more suspicious of them. If we are a member of a non-religious or non-political organization or circle of friends, and start bringing politics and religion into it, we could shatter the group and its mission.
We all belong to organizations or circles of friends that share our values. That’s where our values are affirmed and we can fight for what we believe is right. But those are not the only islands we should live on. We’re part of a larger community, state, country that must hang together or assuredly will hang separately as Ben Franklin said. If people in my historical circles begin to associate only with those who agree with themselves politically, for example, we’ve just cut out some of the strongest advocates of preservation. We lose our effectiveness. If a cultural organization, united because of descent from a particular ethnic group, starts making one side of the political spectrum or the other feel unwelcome, the group could lose its under 50 crowd and become obsolete.
We have Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and all manner of venues via which we can blare our steadfast convictions to the world. I do. Those I like and love know they can take it or leave it. I love sharing my reasons for not giving up no matter the odds and why I believe in a life after this. I want them to have hope and know that nothing is impossible. It is not a requirement for my friendship or devotion, though. No one at a holiday meal has to plow through a 2500-word diatribe on my defense of Civil War monuments before we eat. It is not relevant to the occasion. If politics and religion do come up, then I believe in equal air time. If it becomes a one-sided bashing session, one may tactfully switch topics and redirect those present to a more joyful subject.
You can be passionate, outspoken, contentious, outraged, and risk public ridicule while doing so without being a jerk to your friends personally. I fear that being able to exercise one’s rights while maintaining relationships with those who disagree is becoming a lost art. We can value what we have in common, what drew us together in the first place, and not discuss the topics the knives come out over when it’s not necessary.
Some of the men and women I most admire don’t share my politics or religion. I admire them because of their expertise, their kindness, and very often, their outlandish humor. Being in their presence makes me more joyful and more knowledgeable. Their positive qualities help others be better human beings. Why would you not want to be around funny and smart people? Because they voted for the other guy? I understand maintaining certain ethical boundaries with others and severing toxic relationships. But in general, why can’t you go grab a cold one and kick back with someone who voted for the other guy?
Life would be very boring indeed if we limited our interactions to people who looked, talked, or voted like ourselves. Being exposed to other viewpoints challenges me to improve my rational defenses of my own “stuff” as well. Friends can offer constructive criticisms, help us practice empathy, and aid in building bridges to be able to mutually problem solve with people who aren’t like us. If one of Washington’s five volcanoes blows, I’m not going to run solely to those who worked on an initiative with me, I’m going to seek out the best qualified people to help my community survive.
We can hold to our values, fight for our freedoms, and still cherish diversity in our friends. A true friend knows us as we are and enjoys what we have in common. We have geek culture friends, workout friends, church friends, service organization friends, book club friends, foodie friends, slow stroll in the woods while discussing existential crises friends. We have friends for all reasons, all seasons. Plus those aforementioned morons and putzes and bastards might be the best cycling partner or the most well-connected advocate to advance your ministry to the homeless.
Imagine how bland and colorless life would be if only the Republicans were allowed to go to restaurants with you, or the gym was only open to Democrats, or only Libertarian friends were allowed to call you at 2 in the morning when they had a startled-from-their sleep-level epiphany about their third to last passionate romantic entanglement. It’s also noteworthy that those whose “stuff” we disagree with often have the deepest scars in common with us, be it betrayal, abuse, or abandonment. Survivors come in all shapes and sizes.
Yes, there are limits to what we can tolerate and I am not equating all values or belief systems. There are many dangerous people in this world as well, people who take advantage of our kindnesses and good deeds. We can and should pay attention to that gut instinct that tells us we are playing with fire. I am saying that we can practice a little more respect and empathy for those around us. We can be strong advocates for our causes and still be able to work with those with differing views.
The bottom line is that we can have friendships that are founded upon non-political and non-religious interests. It may not be fashionable to do so, but we will become an increasingly polarized and suicidal nation if that keeps slipping away.
Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.Albert Camus
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