Why you shouldn’t unfriend your political foes

For all that political rhetoric lauds communities bound by shared values, people generally live in communities built on place, education, employment and recreation. To these things values are secondary, and political conflict takes place over our apolitical relationships, including friends, family, neighbours, colleagues and anyone else we bump into.

This fact contributes to the savagery and tragedy of civil wars. Friends and families frequently find themselves on opposite sides of a struggle, particularly brothers in opposing armies. The American Civil War has thrown up enough examples to merit its own Wikipedia page, “Brother against brother”, but instances abound in all fraternal fights.

Western countries are not in a state of civil war, though the cleavages in our societies could suggest otherwise. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after the American president Donald Trump was elected found that 16% of respondents had stopped talking to a friend or family member because of the election, with 13% ending relationships entirely.

The story is similar in Britain. Following the country’s referendum on its EU membership, the chair of a family law solicitors’ group warned that the vote could push some couples to divorce. Nigel Shepherd, the chair of Resolution, told The Guardian that some couples had fallen out “because one voted for remain and one for leave”.

A YouGov poll also revealed in January this year that 20% of Britons would mind if a close relative married a staunch leave voter, with 8% saying they’d mind if a close relative married a staunch remain voter. Similar effects have been observed regarding cross-party marriages in the US.

These partisan views are notable because relationships forged over shared values are comparably rare. Political activists form friendships while working alongside one another, but these are a minority of connections for most. As noted above, people’s lives revolve around school, family, and work, and so their relationships follow.

Still, relationships can be betrayed. Friends and loved ones can hurt us in ways unavailable to strangers. Like strangers they can also behave violently towards us, cheat us in some way, or become unpleasant company. And these are good reasons to stop speaking to them.

So what if this betrayal comes in the form of supporting or voting for a political cause you deeply disagree with? Pressure seems to be mounting to cut such ties, as evinced by the surveys cited above. I think this is ill-advised.

Breaking up

Western societies are rightly proud of the freedoms of speech, publishing and assembly that they have nurtured over generations. The right to speak, write and associate with others for political campaigning is good for individuals and has been the source of much social progress.

However, these rights have limits, and come with powerful counterweights. Just as we have the right to associate with others, we also have the right to disassociate from them. The trivial version of this is unfriending somebody on a social network, but people have always cut ties with others in the physical world, sometimes for political reasons.

Nobody believes that a Quaker is obliged to spend his evenings with a Neo-Nazi, entertaining her opinions of white supremacy, mass deportation, and a return to gender segregation. This is particularly the case where such political views attack the essence of a person: their sex, their race, or their sexuality.

The writer Natalie Slaughter put it like this: “To claim that something is ‘just politics’ is to point out how much privilege you have, either systematically or incidentally. You’re [maybe] a white guy, who, at the end of the day really doesn’t have to worry about whether or not women get equal pay or black boys are shot for buying Skittles and wearing hoodies.”

Many political break-ups are spurred on by a sense of existential threat, or at least some concept of harm. It was on the latter point that the American chat show host Ellen DeGeneres was criticised in October after being spotted at a Dallas Cowboys football game with the Republican and former president George W Bush.

Many critics noted that Bush was an opponent of gay marriage, an issue directly affecting DeGeneres, who faced backlash after coming out as a lesbian in 1997. Others, including The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, called Bush “one of the most destructive presidents in modern American history”, ending the piece with a call for him to imprisoned for war crimes.

This controversy echoed one in Britain from November 2018. John McDonnell, Labour shadow chancellor, had told the BBC he would not be friends with a Conservative. “I can’t forgive them for they’ve done,” he said. “I go back to my constituency and I’ve never seen human suffering life this, in all the times I’ve been an MP and in the 40 years I’ve lived in my constituency.”

Just as people are allowed to abandon abusive friends and family, there is a case for distancing yourself from people who show callous disregard for the lives of others through their political choices. But the downsides are considerable.

Making up

The first reason not to cut off a loved one for political reasons are the emotional costs of doing so. Even a deserved breakup entails hurt for both sides – a kind of bereavement without death – and it should not be undertaken lightly.

Having a deep connection with somebody who doesn’t share your politics also carries advantages absent when you speak to political opponents who are strangers. Partisans find it easy to caricature their opponents as unthinking, callous or stupid, but it is harder to do that for a friend (even if they are genuinely a bit dim).

And though it is flattering to think of your side as the good one in a Manichean battle between light and dark, the reality is never that way. Opponents are much more likely to be misguided or misinformed than malign in their intentions, and your own side are never angels. It is easier to see that when you regularly socialise with both sides.

In other words, keeping your political enemies close, as friends or otherwise, has many of the advantages of promoting free speech more widely. Familiarity with opponents’ views can only make you wiser, sharpening or correcting arguments that dull through repeated airings to sympathetic audiences.

This is especially true for those seeking to persuade others. Disagreeing with somebody who loves you is training for disagreeing with somebody who is largely indifferent. DeGeneres is in a better place to understand her country with her politically diverse friends than anyone who resides in an ideological monoculture, as is the case with a worrying minority of Americans.

If Britain and America have become intellectually smaller places over the last few years, it is not because diverse political views are being aired. The shrinking of political discourse comes when partisans turn every difference of opinion into a battle for the survival of their worldview, and treat their relationships accordingly.

Such people refuse to hear alternative views, treat all disagreement as existential, and sacrifice ties of kith and kin for politics. If there is any group worth cutting ties with, it is the partisans who brook no disagreement, not the targets of their ire.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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