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Tuesday, April 30, 2019 Leer en Español

Are You Choosing Politics Over People?

You either contribute to the polarization or you reduce it.

Photo by Phil Coffman on Unsplash

In this politically polarized era, we’d do well to remember that what kind of people our fellow citizens and neighbors are is far more important than their politics.

Even Friends Don’t Always Agree

So, I have this group of friends—folks who have organically collected over time as part of a weekly dinner/discussion group. We like to think of ourselves as sort of a modern-day salon. While not everyone comes every week, at least five to seven, and sometimes ten or more, have shown up at our current restaurant of choice every Thursday since late 2006.

Our topics span the gamut, and yes, occasionally flirt with the fun and frivolous (“If you could be a superhero, what would your power be, and why?” I’d choose invisibility. Definitely.). And, we absolutely do broach those proverbial off-limits subjects of politics and religion.

Sure, things can get…spirited, but it never gets nasty. 

And in the course of those conversational minefields, we’ve naturally come to discover that—shocker—we don’t always agree. In fact, our group boasts—and it is a point of serious pride—members ranging from screaming left to hard right, and everything in between.

And yet, it always works out. Sure, things can get…spirited, and most every one of us, at one point or another, has shaken our heads at what we consider to be the totally whacked-out point of view of one or more of our compatriots. But it never gets nasty.

Disagree without Being Disagreeable

Why? There are two reasons. First, the cardinal rule of our gatherings: Disagree without being disagreeable. It’s a rule we take seriously. But it’s the second reason that’s most important.

Over the 12-plus years we’ve been hanging out, we’ve taken each other’s measure, as it were. We’ve learned a lot by rubbing elbows, not just on Thursday nights but also at countless social gatherings—holiday parties, movie nights, dinners out, etc. Not to mention many trips, from long weekends in the mountains to 10-plus-day European adventures.

We look out for each other, are there for each other, and therefore we have friends to turn to for help, advice, support, and more.

From years of close contact, we’ve learned that we’re all good and decent people. We look out for each other, are there for each other during trying times (family crises/deaths/job losses), help one another professionally when the opportunity arises, and, as such, we each have a network of friends to turn to for help, advice, support, and more.

And because of that, an interesting yet unsurprising thing happens when our deeply-held positions on the issues of the day clash: because we know, admire, respect, like—heck, love in many cases—each other, we’re far more likely to listen and try to understand that other point of view.

In-person vs. Online Communication

Contrast that with an anonymous comment thread following a mainstream article, with all the interlocutors hiding behind their “handles” as the nastiness flows. It is far easier to objectify someone when you know them only by their words on the screen.

I daresay if they were sitting across the table from each other, like we are, breaking bread, the discourse would remain civil in a way rarely seen among anonymous commenters.

I’m not going to tell you that in our group, we routinely change each other’s minds—though it happens. But I can confidently assert that because we know each other so well, who our friends are—as people—is far more important to us than their political leanings. As it should be, and once was, in this country.

To say that her beliefs put her at political and philosophical odds with me would be an understatement of biblical proportions.

One woman, in particular, epitomizes this wonderful dynamic. She’s an absolutely lovely human being—sweet, kind, always upbeat, smart, and with strong opinions. I greet her with a big hug every time I see her.

And, she’s one of those screaming lefties. We’re talking hardcore here. As in, she put her career on hold for the better part of six months in 2016 to work, out of state, on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. She did the same thing for Democrat Stacey Abrams’s Georgia gubernatorial race last fall.

To say that her beliefs put her at political and philosophical odds with me and several others in the group would be an understatement of biblical proportions.

Sincere Friendship 

Yet when she was in her trenches, she’d occasionally send us little email updates. And more than a few of us in the Other Camp—all earnestly desirous of her candidate’s defeat—would reply back, letting her know how much we respected her for putting her money and time where her mouth was, and we meant it. We didn’t have to agree with her, but we had to respect her.

All I care about—all any of us should really care about—is what kind of people, neighbors, citizens, the people you surround yourself with, are. Do they treat their fellow human beings with kindness, respect, and consideration? Do they help out when needed? And if they do those things, does it really matter if they are “R” or “D”?

If you decide to change your opinion of a friend to a negative one simply because you disagree, doesn’t that say infinitely more about you than them?

In fact, if those good people are and do all those good things, and then you discover they think very differently than you, wouldn’t that—shouldn’t that—give you pause?

And if you do decide to change your previously positive opinion of them—someone whose goodness, kindness, and caring nature you’ve experienced firsthand—to a negative opinion simply because they don’t view the world as you do, doesn’t that say infinitely more about you than them?

Values Are a Result of Life Lessons

Here’s another serious benefit to getting to know a group of people well. Call it an “un-profound/profound” observation: You realize someone’s life philosophy, and, by extension, their politics, is simply the sum total of all their life experiences—how and where they grew up, what their parents taught them, their life experiences, the books they read, the people they crossed paths with, etc.

Bottom line, it’s far harder to demonize someone who’s nothing more or less than the logical end result of everything they’ve been through in life. Just like you.

You either contribute to the polarization or you reduce it.

Now, I’m not naïve. Yes, sometimes what our philosophical opponents are advocating and working toward, are, in our minds, serious existential threats. I get it. So, you do your part to share and advocate your philosophy and points of view—perhaps in venues like this. But nastiness gets you nowhere.

No, it’s not easy to interact with that anonymous commenter online, whose opinion you view as irredeemably clueless, with grace. I struggle with it continually. If you have a way with words, snark can be so much more fun, right? But it’s worth doing. You either contribute to the polarization or you reduce it.

We speak of “civil society.” This is a civil society. We speak of “the fabric of society.” This is the fabric of society: The day-to-day interactions we have with our fellow men and women. The quotidian decency and common courtesy that’s part and parcel of our “going-about-our-day” routines. Isn’t this what really matters, and not all the other stuff?

  • Peter Bowerman is an Atlanta-based freelance writer, and author of the acclaimed Well-Fed Writer series on commercial freelance writing.