Are abortion rights and gay marriage trivial enough issues to be set aside for the sake of a friendship?
Election day can’t get here soon enough. It’s not just that millions of Americans (and hundreds of millions around the world) are anxious to find out whether Barack Obama will get a second term or if Mitt Romney will take his place. It’s that for many of us, friendships and family bonds with folks on the “other side” are strained to the breaking point.
On my Facebook page this past week, the discussion raged: Is it OK to “defriend” contacts merely because they’ve “liked” the page of a candidate one despises? A high number said yes—with stakes this high, such action was perfectly OK. My college friend “Ollie” was among them. “I don’t want to have anything to do with someone who’d vote for Romney,” she explained, “I choose to take their support for Republicans as a personal attack on my right to control my body. Friendship can’t survive that.” In the Facebook thread, several people took issue with Ollie’s firm boundary, pointing out that we can’t lament the loss of bipartisanship in Washington if we aren’t willing to put relationships ahead of ideology. Ollie and several others pushed right back, suggesting that the capacity to put friendship ahead of politics was largely a function of privilege.
It’s almost axiomatic that the lower one’s personal investment in the outcome, the easier it is to banter civilly with one’s political opponents. Growing up, my mother’s family was as ideologically diverse as possible—from card-carrying Communists to evangelical Christian conservatives. The one thing we shared, besides the ties of blood and marriage, was class privilege. As a child, I witnessed heated debates over Vietnam and tax policy at family parties; as a teen, I waded into intense arguments over funding the Contras and divesting from South Africa. Though the discussion was often impassioned, there were rules to how far we could go. “If you can’t speak kindly to each other after the argument is over,” my grandmother said, “you aren’t allowed to argue.” As she reminded us, family unity should always trump politics. My mother’s mother made it abundantly clear that it was very bad manners to allow a relative’s views on policy to impact one’s feelings for them.
My grandmother lived out what she preached. She and my grandfather had a mixed marriage on the atypical side of the gender gap. She was a Republican (from the moderate wing, to be sure); my grandfather was a progressive Democrat. They cancelled out each other’s vote in every presidential election from 1932 to 1968, always with good cheer. According to family lore, the closest they came to cross words came in 1948, when my grandfather’s delight at Truman’s surprise comeback defeat of Dewey briefly crossed the line from happiness to outright gloating. They each had their triumphs and their losses, and viewed their opposite political loyalties as being akin to rooting for rival baseball teams. Nothing, they believed—and taught their descendants to believe—was so serious about politics that it should serve to poison a relationship with a loved one. Growing up in a family that saw politics as a fascinating but ultimately inconsequential sport, I was sheltered from the obvious reality that the outcome of elections has life-changing implications for millions.
I still believe in the importance of civility. What I’ve learned is that civility is less about dismissing the importance of ideological difference, and more about how we engage with our political opposites. Papering over disagreements suggests that they aren’t substantive; saying “politics is never worth losing a friendship” implies that abortion rights or gay marriage are trivial issues. The current election isn’t the Tottenham-Arsenal North London derby, filled with tribal loyalties rooted in differences without distinctions. People’s lives will be dramatically affected by the outcome of next week’s vote—to ask them to pretend otherwise for the sake of harmony dangerously trivializes what’s at stake.
Sometimes, civility isn’t about sustaining a friendship in the face of differences—it’s about the way we choose to cut ties with those on the opposite side of a deeply held issue. For years, one of my best friends was Cyril, a Christian conservative. We met at the gym, bonded over our shared passions for running and for theology. Our disagreements were many, but never so intense that they threatened our relationship. Then came the 2009 assassination of George Tiller, the Kansas doctor who performed late-term abortions. I wrote a post on my blog, passionately defending the slain physician’s work and describing his death as martyrdom. Cyril, who had always been quietly pro-life, couldn’t take it.
Cyril loved me, but couldn’t comprehend how I could speak of a man whom he saw as a murderer as a martyr. Though Cyril repudiated violence against those who perform abortions, he had grave doubts about the state of Dr. Tiller’s soul. I made it clear that I thought the doctor had been doing God’s work. And the gulf between us, Cyril realized, had now grown too vast for even a history of deep friendship to span.
We didn’t speak for several months. I moved to West L.A. and was busy with my expanding family; Cyril and his wife had also just had a child. My calls weren’t returned, but I figured he was just incredibly busy. Finally, I sent him an email, and got a kind, serious, thoughtful reply. Cyril explained that he loved and respected me and was grateful for our years of mutual friendship. But, he said, ideas have consequences, a view he knew I shared. None of us agree with one another on everything, but there are certain core issues that are so central that the absence of a common view can strain even the best of friendships.
Cyril suggested, and I agreed, that to smooth over our differences over abortion for the sake of friendship would do violence to the seriousness with which we held our positions and to our long history of mutual respect. We would still be cordial when we happened to speak; we are both men for whom kindness is an important value. But we are also people for whom there are higher values still. And because of those higher values, our friendship has ended. In our final conversation, we reached agreement on this: Our beliefs should never be so passionately held as to render us incapable of decency and empathy. But our core beliefs shouldn’t be worn so lightly that they can be tossed aside for the sake of amiability.
I have cousins whom I see regularly whose views are not all that different from Cyril’s. We stay in relationship, bound by ties that are stronger than mere friendship. We choose our friends in a way we don’t choose our families; I’d never dream of cutting my conservative relatives out of my life. (Though I’m happy to block their political posts from my Facebook newsfeed.) But I respect those who make other choices. Once, I would have pitied anyone who cut off contact with a family member over political differences. That pity came from the privilege of imagining that the stakes were too low to matter. I see now just how high they are.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.