I was recently heartened to see actors Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr. defend their castmate, Chris Pratt, after he came under fire for his absence at a virtual Biden fundraiser hosted by the Avengers cast. But I was equally disheartened to see the subsequent barrage of Twitter assaults against the two actors who stood up for their friend. Thousands of users evidently felt that their hazy sense of Pratt’s political views better defined his character than the direct testimony of his colleagues. Now, of course, Twitter is not the real world, but the take-no-prisoners Twitter mentality, which permits neither nuance nor empathy, increasingly infects American private life.
We are a mere two days from an election whose results will strain friendships and relationships. When the dust settles, half of the country will be disappointed or deeply upset by the result, and we will all have to continue to interact with those who supported someone we find politically or personally repugnant. How can we keep our friendships intact amidst a frenzy of election-fueled contempt?
Generally avoid associating political views with character defect.
Far too often, we immediately assign the worst possible motive to others’ disagreeable political views, flippantly leveling serious accusations of racism, hatred, or apathy. But before we impugn someone’s character, we ought to take a step back and consider some important questions: Am I understanding the other person’s position charitably or am I immediately jumping to the worst possible conclusions? Is the person misinformed rather than malicious? Do I fully understand the position that the other person is taking? Is an issue that is distant to me affecting the other person and their loved ones in a specific way, perhaps one I have not considered?
Especially for those whom you know well, political views are a weak metric of character. I am dismayed when individuals cut off long-standing relationships with people they know to be thoughtful, kind, and generous after their political views come to light. If someone you respect holds a political view that seems out of line with their character, consider that you might have a caricatured view of their beliefs. Listen to what they have to say—not necessarily to rebut them, but to understand their view and what shapes it.
Remember that your friends’ experiences have shaped them in the same way that your own experiences have shaped you.
People are complicated. Their political views are shaped by countless factors—where they grew up, what they have experienced, their cultural and moral values, and possibly even their genetics. Maybe your friend’s family relies heavily on a government program. Maybe his or her parents own a business struggling under new regulations. Perhaps your friend is part of a strong religious community. Whatever the case, you likely have a tiny, limited view of the other person’s life. Remember this limited perspective before jumping to conclusions about another individual’s political and moral positions. On a related note, politics is inherently more personal for some individuals than it is for others—affecting their jobs, incomes, immigration statuses, and marriages. Be merciful, empathetic, and gracious in victory and defeat.
Strive for intellectual humility.
Intellectual humility is the recognition that, while objective truth exists, our own conception of that truth will always be woefully incomplete. The political questions we debate with our friends in the dining hall are deeply complex and, frankly, unamendable to a Manichaean view of truth. On many political questions, people who have attained the highest levels of expertise still disagree vigorously. Acknowledging this fact does not mean that we reject objectivity or that our own contributions to the debate are invalid. But it does mean that the possibility always exists that everything we believe is totally wrong. Embracing that possibility allows us to learn, grow, and move beyond dogmatic conceptions of political truth.
Be passionate about your beliefs without being militant.
A growing number of people appear to think that if they are not angry or combative when discussing the issues important to them, then they do not really care as much as they claim to. This view is completely backwards. In fact, if you do really care about a political issue, then changing others’ hearts and minds should be your priority. Turning every discussion into all-out war accomplishes the opposite, more often driving people back into their respective corners than building understanding or consensus.
Try not to lose perspective. Is scoring a political point really more important to you than a long-standing relationship?
If, in spite of your best efforts to implement my previous advice, your conversations with friends, classmates, and loved ones nonetheless become strained, frustrating, and bitter, it is important to reassess whether you are are giving politics more weight than they deserve. The politician you are defending does not care about you personally or even know who you are, but the person sitting across from you does.
A final note:
Politicians regularly claim that their opponent’s victory will stir division, while theirs will restore unity, empathy, and trust. But the person who sits in the Oval Office will not magically restore social harmony. That is our work, the work of individuals and communities making small efforts toward understanding one another. If we truly want to “restore the soul of the nation,” each of us has a role in catalyzing that healing, one that goes far beyond the name we check on our ballots.
…the person who sits in the Oval Office will not magically restore social harmony. That is our work, the work of individuals and communities making small efforts toward understanding one another. If we truly want to “restore the soul of the nation,” each of us has a role in catalyzing that healing, one that goes far beyond the name we check on our ballots.