Can friendships survive deep political divides?
Listening to the news on 24th June 2016, the day after the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU), my heart sank. Brexit had become a reality.
The reasons for my despair after that vote were many, but one stood out above all the rest:
The narratives around Brexit, and from the most extreme proponents of it, have fuelled and ‘legitimised’ the sharp rise in xenophobia and racist attacks in the UK.
I knew that some good friends of mine had voted for Brexit – and so they had voted for the side promoting that xenophobia. In that moment of hearing the news, I didn’t know whether those friendships would be sustainable anymore. I felt betrayed: I am white but my partner is a person of colour. My friends had chosen to support the side that had now put a target on his back, risking his safety and, potentially, his life. He (and we) have skin in the game, literally.
In a way, it was little surprise when the racist abuse began again for my partner – but shocking still for him to experience things he hadn’t seen since schooldays in the late 70s.
So is it possible to mend a friendship broken by such polarised politics? Can we get past that feeling of betrayal? Can we reach a point of reconciliation?
It’s a very personal question for all of us. With the massively divisive political rhetoric circulating in a lot of places in the world, not least in the USA, I suspect these are questions many people are asking themselves right now.
When politics is a theatre of extremes, the resulting narrative in the press and online means people take up positions that are far more entrenched and polarised than before.
We are being taught to fear certain groups and to align with certain others, and our choices will depend on what we read and who we listen to.
So healing relationships across such divides can be a tall order, but here are some of my personal thoughts about mending a friendship broken by politics.
Is it a deal-breaker?
When a friend admitted to me that she actually preferred to have white neighbours, I was deeply shocked and hurt. I was horrified, actually. I thought long and hard about what my response should be. In the end I decided not to continue the friendship because, for me personally, diversity and inclusion is one of my strongest values.
I often write about how vital it is that we listen to each other so we can build bridges of understanding, and in a way I feel I failed with this particular friendship. Maybe there’s no right or wrong in these cases though.
Consciously letting the friendship go was, in a way, mending it. Sometimes we need to grieve for what will no longer be, and then accept that perhaps some things are never going to last forever.
I am in awe of leaders like Özlem Sara Cekic, who set up #DialogueCoffee after receiving hate mail, yet who subsequently began inviting her haters to meet and talk with her. She has had some success in lowering, if not removing, levels of hostility by helping her haters see that she has similar wants, needs and loves as they do. Meet Ozlem Sara Cekic, Denmark’s female Muslim MP who meets neo-Nazis for tea and cake – article from The Independent
Is there any room for understanding?
When someone you know votes for something that has such a deeply negative impact on your own life, the obvious question to ask is ‘Why did they do that?’ An entrenched prejudice is one thing, but when their vote was cast with a view that ‘I’m not really interested in politics but this seemed to be what my Twitter feed was telling me’, then maybe we have more scope.
Do we decide to invest time in explaining why this has been so damaging to us and to those we love – and hope the other person will listen and start to understand the impact of their vote? Or do we choose to ignore the subject when we see our friend? Or do we give up on reconciliation and let the friendship fizzle out?
It’s hard. Polarised narratives embed themselves deeply in the psyche of everyone hearing and believing them, whatever the vote and whatever the side.
Maybe an initial question to ask the friend is whether they would be willing to hear you out – for you to explain what’s happened from your point of view. If they’re not, maybe you have your answer straight away. If they are, though, then there could be space for understanding to emerge on both sides.
3 ways to find resolution in a friendship broken by politics
1. Take a pen and paper and write (just for yourself) about the current situation in the world and/or to do with the issue – but write from the point of view of your friend. Aim to be objective and find arguments to support their ‘side’. See what emerges that you may not have thought about before.
2. Now write something similar, using the same points, but this time write as if your friend is writing it – and imagine they are feeling fear. Does that help you understand why they might have made the decision they made? And does that present greater scope for discussion?
3. If you feel that the friendship probably won’t survive, write a letter to your friend. (You don’t have to actually send it.) Explain your reasons for feeling as you do and also acknowledge all the good things about them and about your friendship over the years. Put your own case too, and end on a positive note. If you’re not actually going to send the letter, read it out loud to yourself and then tear it up respectfully. This often helps you take the first steps into your life without them. It’s not necessarily easy, but it can work well when so much has been at stake in the actions of both sides.
If, despite your best efforts, a relationship really can’t survive, if the issue is too fundamental, maybe find the courage to draw a line and build a new community of friends who share the same value set. I realise, though, that this can lead to the same tribalism that causes problems in the first place. Maybe we need to build friendships where we aren’t afraid to challenge each other’s beliefs from time to time, and keep looking at the bigger picture.
Maybe mending a friendship broken by politics really comes down to our willingness to sit down and have the conversation – and to engage. I’d be interested to hear your views.
11 ways to speak with the ‘enemy’ – article from Lynne Mctaggart