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Can We Still Be Friends?

Political discord tends to lead to disharmony in relationships.
iStockphoto.com
Political discord tends to lead to disharmony in relationships.

As a 22-year-old, I only have a few years of memory where the internet did not play an active role in my life. As I learned to make friends on the playground, I also learned to make them online. As I learned the vocabulary in Merriam-Webster's, I also learned the vocabulary in Urban Dictionary. My parents taught me the dangers of strangers in the street, I educated myself on the dangers of strangers that could contact me in my bedroom, through the light of a pocket-sized screen. So one became the other, two realities blending, for better or for worse.

Although we have known each other for a while, the internet and I, I became aware of the division it creates only recently. Following the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president, my online circles shifted dramatically in ways I had not seen before. I watched friends of mine "purge" their Facebook friends lists of any person they suspected of disagreeing with them. The places I used to go for memes and dog videos became a political battlefield littered with crude language for anyone supporting one politician or another.

Now, in 2020, as the internet has become the top survival tool of the coronavirus pandemic, I am more curious how the internet aids the increasing division between political parties or, more accurately, between friends, neighbors, parents, and loved ones. In a time and a place where everything is political, the stakes seem incredibly too high, and unfriending is a defensive reflex, can we still be friends? I want to find out.

Logging In

A study by three political scientists, published in 2019 found that "a large number of Americans believe their physical health has been harmed by their exposure to politics and even more report that politics has resulted in emotional costs and lost friendships.” And this makes sense. The internet allows us to access information quicker and on a much larger scale than before. Not only are we able to keep up with our local politics, but also political events across the globe. The algorithms at work in social media platforms and search engines continue to show us click-bait type information, hoping we will willingly jump down the rabbit hole. The unrelenting flow of information can be at best, annoying, and at worst, exhausting. It is also incredibly effective at cementing ideologies into our brains and eliminating credible sources that might challenge us to think otherwise.

To process this data, or perhaps just to vent about it, we take to social media. Tim Hagle is an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. He says using social media as a platform to discuss politics might be one of the reasons conversations can end up so toxic.

"Where (on social media) you don't know these people a lot of the time, so folks don't feel the need to be respectful to anybody else. So they use slang whereas if they were with that person face-to-face, they probably wouldn't do that... That's just kind of the whole notion of the information and the anonymity of it that really intensifies the dissension," he said.

When someone is rude to Hagle online, he mutes them.

"My rule is if they swear at me, they're muted," Hagle said, "if they don't follow me, I'll just block them. I just have a low tolerance for this stuff and that's my way of keeping the landscape somewhat clean."

It seems that many Americans, some even in the national spotlight, are turning to blocking people with opposing viewpoints online, but this blocking extends to in-person relationships as well. On NPR's All Things Considered, writer Felicia Sullivan was interviewed about her story "I Lost My Best Friend Of Two Decades To Trump." The story focuses on the abrupt end of a close relationship due to racism, and ultimately, support of a candidate Sullivan believed would perpetuate harmful ideas. In the emotional open letter-style story, Sullivan writes "I wish I could still love you. I wish I could throw open the doors and let the mothballs flutter out, but I can't."

Blocking people, on and offline, can have very real emotional effects. Whether it's relief or heartbreak, sometimes it's necessary to cut ties with people who are harmful to your mental health. On the other hand, "it's a hard thing to do because that (blocking) shuts off an awful lot of conversation that might actually be valuable," Hagle says. How do we balance mental well-being without staying in our own echo chambers?

Opening A(n in-person) Chat Box

As with almost everything, communication is probably key to decreasing these divides. In order to have a productive political conversation, there are a few things to keep in mind. Jacob Priest is the director of the LGBTQ counseling clinic at the University of Iowa. He provided some helpful tips for discussing politics (preferably offline) with family members, friends, or romantic partners that may not agree.

1. Make sure you're safe
This is the first and perhaps most important step. If you are going to engage in a conversation with someone about politics, make sure it is with a person you trust. Priest emphasizes that when safety is the baseline, it's much easier to focus on other things that can set your conversation up for success.

In addition, it can be helpful to think about your relationship with this person before going into the conversation. Are you able to disagree on other things peacefully? Do you have a mutual respect for one another? According to Priest, "our relationships pre-date the development of our political identity. So the interactions we’ve had with parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts or friends… often times, there’s gonna be hurt that predates these political differences." By taking stock of this before entering a conversation, it will be easier to make sure you are focused on the topic rather than your history with the person.

And ultimately, if you think your relationship might be too tense to handle a conversation, it's always OK to table it for another time.

"I think that if you’ve had a conflictual/problematic relationship with someone, and you’re trying to engage them in a political discourse around the topic, it’s not gonna be fruitful," Priest said. "You’re gonna react to what they’re saying emotionally."

2. Agree on the facts
It's no secret that there is a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there. The most productive political conversations are ones that agree on what the facts are before engaging in the conversation. Priest uses the example of discussing racial inequities in America.

"If you look at the research on health inequities, if you look at the research on income inequality, across gender and racial lines, there are stark differences that these are manifestations of problematic systems and structures in our society that have been set up to create these inequities," Priest said. "And so you can have a debate about the best way to go about addressing these inequities in our society. I think that is a healthy debate. What I don’t think is a healthy debate is whether or not these inequities exist."

Hagle adds that alongside facts, it's also important to make sure there is an agreement on definition. He explains how the term "court packing" has shifted over the years. Originally the term meant adding justices to the Supreme Court in excess of nine justices, the number that was proposed in the 1930s.

"So now all of a sudden you get Democratic office holders, saying 'no, no, no. Court packing is when you’re filling vacancies with your same ideology.' And that’s not what it is," said Hagle. When there's a disagreement on how a word is being used, that can be enough to derail an already tense argument. Make sure to establish definitions, as well as facts, before engaging in a political conversation.

3. Setting the stage
Why are you having this conversation? Priest says distinguishing the intentionality of a conversation can make it more productive, and the reason should never be to try to change the other person's mind.

"Sometimes we come to this political discussion already knowing where we want the outcome to arrive," Priest said. "And if we approach political conversations about wanting to understand instead of wanting to change, I think actually then change is more likely to happen."

While Dr. John Gottman's research pertains mainly to divorce rates among married couples, Priest says it can be translated to other conversations as well. Gottman's research shows "that you can predict the way a conversation will go 96% of the time based just on the initial three minutes."

4. Stick to one topic
Bouncing around too much will weaken the purpose of the discussion and make it easier to get off topic.

"If you jump from health care to climate change to the Supreme Court to tax structures, you’re not gonna have a good conversation about any of that," Priest said. He suggests asking follow-up questions to keep the conversation on topic, as well as allowing it to progress to a deeper level.

"Asking follow-up questions requires them to think about the criticism as opposed to just having a blanket statement about it," Priest explained. "You’re showing that a) you’re interested in what they have to say and, b) you’re creating space to see that those blanket statements are really a cover for not a lot of understanding or maybe some fear."

5. Respecting disagreement
When all is said and done, it's natural and expected for disagreements to remain, especially if you are going into the conversation without trying to change the other person's mind. Hagle says the lack of respect for people with differing opinions is a toxic reality.

"It's not necessarily a terrible thing that you’ve considered the options and made up your mind, that’s fine. But you have to also get back to the respect thing," Hagle said. "Maybe somebody has looked at the options and come to a different conclusion. And that happens."

Part of respecting disagreement might also be picking your battles. Hagle says letting some negative remarks go by without feeling the need to confront them can help conserve your emotional energy.

"You don’t have to confront every slight that might come your way. And I think that’s a sort of related but separate problem where folks feel the need to fight every wrong and that doesn’t get you anywhere in the long run, I think," he said.

6. Creating boundaries
At the end of the day, you are the one who knows what's best for you. If you've attempted having political conversations with a person in the past and they are unproductive, hurtful, or possibly even dangerous, it's probably best to create a boundary. Both Hagle and Priest say boundaries are healthy and might be the best option for some relationships, especially if the views are incredibly opposite but the relationship remains very important.

While it's easier said than done, it works for some. Hannah Thomas is a Missouri native who moved to Iowa for college and decided to stay. She says the three year period of silence between her and her grandmother over political differences is what ultimately allowed them to rebuild.

Restarting

As a queer woman who grew up in rural Missouri, Thomas was used to not fitting in, even amongst her own family. Many times throughout her young adulthood, she has chosen to implement boundaries on conversation with them.

"There’ve been extended periods of time where I won’t talk to them because you know, I can’t always keep up that relationship with somebody who disagrees with such a fundamental part of who I am," Thomas said.

These points of disagreement are the strongest with her grandmother. Thomas says between the fights about her queerness, the election of Donald Trump into office in 2016, and constant emotionally-charged disagreements, eventually she got fed up and cut ties with her. After three years of silence between the two of them, Thomas began talking to her grandmother again earlier this year after Thomas' younger sister left for the Navy.

"So I kind of, I think, reopened that doorway partially because my sister kind of needed someone else to be a regular contact so she wouldn’t feel guilty about going away to boot camp," said Thomas. "And partially because, you know, I don’t know if I want to be that closed off to my family anymore."

Thomas says boundaries, although sometimes tough to establish, were the key to restarting her relationship with her grandmother. Rather than revert to the emotionally-charged conversations concerning politics that they used to have, Thomas and her grandmother now talk about a shared experience, working retail.

"We mostly just talk about customers. The odd balls and the rude ones. We also can find common ground venting frustrations about coworkers who don't pull their weight. That's probably my favorite part because it's a reminder that there is a value we have in common, hard work," she said.

Even though they are not explicitly talking about politics, Thomas has noticed that her family's stances on some subjects have changed significantly.

"In my family specifically, it seems to be working better to have the channel of communication open. In the sense that my family no longer says the N word. They no longer use slurs relating to queer people," Thomas said. "That’s part of the reason I let those relationships flourish again."

Thomas is not the only American who has made amends with loved ones regarding political differences. This Wall Street Journal article explores the relationship between two families with very opposite political views. In each of their yards are signs supporting their candidate for the 2020 presidential race, one family sporting a Biden sign, the other, Trump. But also in their yards are signs pointing to the opposite house with the words "We Heart Them." The key to their success is respect.

Ultimately, when it comes to deciding whether or not we can stay friends with those we disagree with, or if we even should, it all hinges on respect. When we feel safe and supported, conversation is possible. When we can agree on the facts, conversation is possible. When we can agree to disagree on issues that do not inhibit the rights of others, conversation is possible. And it is with these small, seemingly miniscule conversations that we come together again.