Adversaries with Benefits: Don’t Apologize for Befriending Your Political Rivals

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Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

You’re at a party indulging yourself in the last few drops of a lukewarm brew. You mosey on out to the sparsely populated sunroom, plant yourself in a pockmarked leather recliner that’s way more comfortable than it has any right to be, and tune out the drunken whispers of that one unrelenting butterfly who refuses to lay the night to rest. The morning light peaks out from behind a gas station across the street and wraps itself around you. You’re enveloped in a blissful, zen-like stillness. Your eyelids start to droop. Your breathing starts to slow.

Out of nowhere, a whirlwind of tension and regret descends upon the moment. Someone mumbled something about politics, and that someone just happens to be the friend who you invited to the party. He just couldn’t help himself.

The next day, you’re inundated with inelegantly phrased texts and snarky voice messages imbued with condemnation and bewilderment. Your pal sort of killed the mood. I’m surprised you’re friends with that guy. You don’t actually agree with him on, like, anything, do you? He’s not coming to the pub next week, is he?

I’ve been in this situation before. So have several other people I know, particularly those who choose not to segregate themselves from people with opposing political views. And if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve had to wrestle with this sort of thing yourself. In fact, I know that situations like the one I’ve described have become increasingly common as America continues to pull itself apart at the political seams — I’ve heard the stories firsthand. But the next time you feel compelled to start spitting out apologies for a friend’s politics, or possibly even leaving them behind the next time you head out to the pub for a few friendly rounds, you really ought to allow yourself a moment to reconsider.

Two people working with similar sets of principles can and frequently do arrive at very different conclusions about morality, rights, and the proper role of government. That’s why, if you want to figure out who someone really is, you may have to tunnel through their politics, extract the principles that undergird those politics, and place those principles under a philosophical microscope for further examination.

Can your progressive friend’s support for gun control be attributed to a statist worldview, or is it actually a byproduct of the same desire to preserve life that inspires conservative opposition to abortion? Are they opposed to capital punishment because they care more about murderers than they do about victims, or are they motivated by the stories of the innocent men and women who were sentenced to die for crimes they never committed? Is their criticism of law enforcement a manifestation of their hatred for police, or do they simply believe, as a matter of principle, that figures of authority ought to be held accountable for their misdeeds?

For some, it’s very tempting — and incredibly lazy — to simply assume that a person’s politics is a consequence of either a corrupted moral foundation or the total absence of such a foundation. For example, a progressive birdie may have once whispered in your ear that conservatives don’t care about the environment because conservatism itself is grounded in pure, unadulterated selfishness. But much of the available research suggests that that’s utter nonsense.

For example, a 2016 study conducted by Oregon State University’s Christopher Wolsko found that when environmental issues are framed in ways that relate to conservative moral values, conservatives expressed a greater concern for those issues. “They tended to report greater likelihood of engaging in a variety of conservation behaviors,” he explained to Steve Curwood in an interview for Living on Earth. They also “tended to report greater belief in climate change, tended to report that they thought climate change was more caused by human-induced processes relative to natural cycles.”

The big takeaway here is that — gasp! — conservatives must indeed have morals; if that weren’t the case, Wolsko wouldn’t have been able to appeal to their moral sensibilities. What’s more, it would seem that a conservative’s moral principles do not necessarily preclude support for taking action on environmental issues.

That said, the conservative and progressive paths to environmentalism may very well never cross. Conservatives tend to favor free market solutions to government intervention. Progressives often favor the opposite. And therein lies the rub. Just because two people believe in the same basic principle, it doesn’t mean that said principle is going to steer each of them to the same exact conclusions.

The point is that you cannot necessarily infer a substantial defect in a person’s character by looking exclusively at that person’s politics. You can be conservative, be relatively selfless, care deeply about the environment, and still arrive at the conclusion that many environmental regulations are counterproductive or unnecessary. Similarly, you can be progressive, be respectful of the rule of law, not hate police officers, and still arrive at the conclusion that we need more accountability in the law enforcement community.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t an abundance of hatred, hypocrisy and narcissism out there in the world. There are indeed plenty of conservatives who care only about themselves and proudly wear their selfishness on their sleeves. And there are plenty of progressives motivated primarily by a fervent and bitter hatred for anyone who belongs to the “wrong” demographic. These people obviously exist. Many of us encounter them on a daily basis and, quite understandably, do everything we can to avoid any unnecessary interactions with them.

Furthermore, I am not arguing that you should go out of your way to make friends with politically-minded individuals with whom you have no hope of getting along. No one has the right to tell you who to be friends with, least of all some stranger on the internet. Besides, it wouldn’t make much sense to invest even the slightest bit of time or energy into a relationship that you’re already convinced is destined to fail.

If, however, you already have a friend whose political views are not in line with either your views or the views of the other members of your social circle(s), and if a peak into that friend’s soul produces evidence of the strong character, honest heart and honorable motives you always knew were there, then what precisely do you have to apologize for?

The answer, of course, is nothing.

In fact, if you’re a heavy consumer of partisan news, and if most of the people you follow on Twitter and Facebook are people who share your politics, you should probably thank your party-killing friend from the other side of the ideological spectrum; they may very well be your best defense against the misperceptions proliferated by online echo chambers and partisan media sources.

Additionally, you may also want to thank your friend for playing what is often the most important role in any community — the role of the dissenter.

One of the principal arguments in favor of freedom of speech is that disagreement precedes progress. Without disagreement, there can be no debate. And without debate, there can be no refinement of ideas or testing of philosophies. Disagreements force you to be more introspective. They bring your underlying beliefs to the surface to see whether they can withstand the scrutiny brought by an opposing point of view. When they can’t, you’re presented with the opportunity to reevaluate those beliefs and either find a way to reconcile them with whatever new logic has been laid before you or replace them with a new and improved set of beliefs. This in turn permits your evolution as an intellectual and moral creature. Your ego may make it difficult to perceive such opportunities as blessings, but that’s exactly what they are.

The catch is that you need someone to disagree with you before that process can take place. If that someone is a friend — a friend who will presumably handle such disagreements in a far more civilized and respectful way than a stranger likely would — so much the better!

But perhaps the best reason you or anyone else has for hanging on to “that friend” is this: good friends are hard to find. Unless they’ve said or done something that you find intolerable and unforgivable, don’t be in too much of a rush to cut them out of your life, even if it means having to deal with the collective disapproval of the rest of your crew. It’s a lot more difficult to win a good friend back than it is to shoo them away. There are plenty of people out there, many of whom are much wiser and more experienced than I am, who can testify to that.

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