The Imaginary Heroine

searching for the plot

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Other March 25, 2010

A couple of days ago, I was perusing my usual morning sites when I came across a post on Jezebel.com written in response to this piece in the Wall Street Journal. The topic? Friendship breakups.

While the WSJ article discusses the painful fallout of a friendship gone bad, it still assumes that you’re going to need to jettison some friends at some point in your life and gives hints as to how to get it done. I agree with Anna N. from Jezebel in thinking that these steps may be necessary for a friend who is stealing your money for heroin or is some kind of a toxic bully,  but the best option for a friendship in a dry spell is probably time and space. Instead of permanently casting off friendships, we should dial them down and wait for circumstances to change. In a few weeks, months, even years, you and your friend may be right back on the same page and you’ll be so very happy you didn’t have that dramatic split. Even if you die without ever getting back together, it’ll save unnecessary time, drama, and tears on both ends.

However this section gave me pause:

“Some friendships can actually be bad for us — if a friend is manipulative, untrustworthy, or intentionally hurtful, self-preservation pretty much demands a split. But what of the pal who’s simply annoying, who has objectionable political views (one of Bernstein’s examples), or with whom we just don’t have as much in common as we used to? This friend might be occasionally fun but often grating, or might make us angry and happy in equal measure. What to do?” – Anna N., “The Friendship Breakup: When to Hold ‘Em and When to Fold ‘Em,” Jezebel [emphasis added]

The political examples Bernstein gives are “Rob Wilson, 53, a writer in Atlanta, saw a 12-year friendship abruptly end after he mentioned he was voting for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election” on the dump-ee end and for the dump-ers she has the suggestion “Become a Facebook pest. I have a gay friend who has had much success getting rid of bigoted high school friends by making his status updates as flamboyant and politically charged as possible.”

The dump-er example makes sense in one way and not at all in another. If acquaintances have shown themselves to be bigots or hateful towards you, then cut ties ASAP. But the cyber pest suggestion seems childish, passive aggressive, and counter-productive. If you really want to get rid of someone just do it. Hide them from your feed. Or block them. It’s instantly effective, since you don’t have to wait for them to act. You wont see them and they wont see you. The end.

Trying to annoy the crap out of someone in hopes that they cut you off on their own is not attractive, effective, or constructive. You will NOT get the satisfaction of seeing them break down sobbing and saying you were right all along, like a bully in some afternoon teen special. They’re more likely to make additional inane and hurtful comments or just ignore you, giving you no real satisfaction. Don’t let someone you dislike turn you into a nasty person and ruin any more moments of your life.

The dump-ee example, a man voting for a candidate his friend disliked and its equation with “objectionable political views” as grounds for breakups (Bernstein) or distancing (Anna N.) upsets me on a visceral level for a number of reasons.

Neither my friends, 7abibi, my family, or any of my acquaintances ascribe to the same political views as I do. The few times I have sought out people who do, I haven’t been successful in uncovering anyone I really connected with. If everyone kept to their own kind, I would have no one at all.

My own experience with politics and relationships has been ugly. It started out ugly in high school, in the amazingly charged climate after 9/11, and has stayed ugly, right through college to the present ever-escalating  political nightmare. It was a hard lesson, but I learned that I would seldom, if ever, have the luxury of being in a situation where anyone agreed with me or backed me up in a political discussion…or argument.

I came to expect being the one at the bottom of a dog pile of derision. Sometimes the dog pile was full of people I didn’t know. Other times it was composed of people I loved, trusted, and respected. No matter who it is, it hurts. Every time. I’m still trying to figure out how to let it go and move on. Because this dog pile wont be the last or the worst or the most important. Sometimes I play dead and say nothing. Either because I just can’t take it that day or this fight doesn’t matter or this dog pile might prove fatal for a friendship, job, or my personal well-being.

You’re thinking “fatal? Dramatic much?” Allow me to point you to this section of the comments on Jezebel. Where a few people chimed in that politics is definitely grounds for dismissal. Says one commenter, “I’m not friends with people who don’t share my general political views. I just don’t do it. Does this make me judgey and intolerant? Perhaps. Does it make my life better? Yes.” Another says “I don’t have any friends who aren’t on the same page as me either. It’s a total deal breaker.” Another woman says she does maintain friendly acquaintances who disagree with her, but follows it up by saying that she’s currently distancing herself from someone too different.

You’ll see me in there doing a terrible job of making a point, because I broke my cardinal rule of commenting: don’t comment while you’re emotional. I also broke my cardinal rule of speaking up: don’t speak up when there is no benefit. I lashed out for no reason. I feel bullied, hated, misunderstood, and alone. And it’s my own damn fault. I made myself feel bad through the medium of someone with no reason to give a shit about me and who also claims intolerance in the name of a cause as a virtue.

I need to just drop it.

But I can’t.

I can’t not be emotional on this issue. Let me boil down these comments:

I do not like people who are not like me.

Ugly, isn’t it, sitting out there all bald like that? At least one of the commenters owned it for what it was: intolerance. I would consider Jezebel and its commenters to be a generally progressive lot. But this is definitely NOT a progressive idea. At all. This is regressive and hateful.

Since when is it acceptable to say and act in accordance with this sort of philosophy? It is unacceptable to say I don’t like black people or gays or Muslims or people from Arkansas. Why is it okay to say the same about someone whose political beliefs aren’t in lock step with yours?

A wise friend* explained the thinking to me thusly:

“It’s allowed when it’s an ideological issue. People view political beliefs as changeable. It’s not like race, or to some degree religion, where you’re born one thing and you stay one thing. Your politics can change and so if you disagree with someone, it’s YOU disagreeing with them, not some other that you can’t get away from. (I mean you in a global sense, btw)”

I tried to think my way around this by saying that politics has taken the place of religion as personal identification for a large segment of American society. People don’t like to see it that way, because they think religion is not based in fact and political points of view are. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say a lot of our politics are taken on faith, especially in the US’s two-party system. We decide to ascribe to a whole bulletin of party issues that aren’t always related.

For instance, if someone identifies as a Christian first, they may be against the death penalty, abortion, and war, but are they a Republican or a Democrat? I think a lot of religious people struggle with the dilemma of reconciling political and religious doctrine. Some Christians consider themselves Republicans based on single issues like abortion or gay marriage. Others consider themselves Democrats based on single issues like…abortion or gay marriage. I was going to put war or social welfare, but I’m not going to pretend that either party has a lock on the Christian vote for any one issue.

Once they decide on a party, they are automatically presumed by people on the ground and pollsters in DC to agree with a host of other party issues. They themselves may even assume that because a party is right on one issue, it’s right on other issues. Some people aren’t assuming. Maybe they’re brilliant human beings that live to a ripe old age of 101 and read day in and day out about political philosophy. Or a dedicated warriors in pursuit of radical changes of their country’s political and social environment, like one of the Jezebel commenters mentioned above.

I still don’t believe that it’s the best idea to categorically ban relationships with people different from ourselves.

Why? Because once we are within an echo chamber, it is far easier to see that the other side, being wrong on one issue, is wrong on every issue. Not only are they wrong on every issue, they want to be wrong. They’re trying to trick us into being wrong too. They’re actually mean, hateful, evil people. They’re not like me. They are the other. I could never like them.

I do not like people who are not like me.

There it is. Again.

This is the perfect example of how intolerance is born of fear and ignorance. We did it in the past with race, religion, gender, and sexuality. Hell, we still do it with race, religion, gender, sexuality, and tons of other stuff. We human beings are really good at hating each other for any and every reason. Usually not a good one.

I’m going to go out from my limb to a twig and say deciding to eschew contact with all people who are not like you does not make your life better.

In fact, it makes everyone’s life worse. Do I have to go back and make citations of historical and present day events for people to see that hate and intolerance are demonstrably bad not only for individuals, but society as a whole?

So what is the answer? I don’t know. I don’t know that there is an answer.

If you don’t want to or can’t be friends with someone, then don’t. It’s better for both of you than building up resentment and misunderstanding.

You don’t have to be best friends with someone who thinks abortion is murder, if you think abortion is a right and integral to women’s empowerment. Maybe it’s not possible. I don’t know.

But I beg you to consider what you are doing if you dismiss out of hand people who are not like you. Here is why:

1) We may already like people we think we hate.
The social atmosphere right now is so poisoned by intolerance, people who see the world differently from the dominant group (whether it’s the dominant group in the country, in the room, or in the circle of friends) are too terrified to speak up. Think of that person who always says something non-committal when politics come up. It may be she has no opinion. It may also be she doesn’t agree with the dominant group and knows or fears that it could lead to isolation and resentment if she were to reveal herself.

I “came out” to a college friend and roommate about my political views after a long time of working on a bond of trust and mutual affection. I shit you not, her first response was “Oh. I thought you were normal like the rest of us.” To her credit, she continues to treat me like a normal person who is capable of being her friend. Because I freaking AM. I’ve also had this go the other way and had former friends attack me viciously and never speak to me again. Usually I’m too afraid. So I just protest I have no interest in politics. Or I say nothing at all and hope it goes unnoticed.

Some people realize the folly of cutting off friends for differences that aren’t as divisive as they once realized. Some people feel betrayed. Instead of letting the knowledge that they like someone they thought they would hate explode their past logic, they revert. So it goes.

2) We don’t hate these people, we hate fear and uncertainty.
By refusing friendship and discourse with someone different, we are missing the chance to challenge our own point of view. Meaning we are limiting our own knowledge and personal growth. We are making ourselves a bad advocate for our own causes. We open ourselves up to all kinds of manipulation by people who may have other ends in mind.

As anyone with a background in social sciences will tell you, “the other” is not reflective of an actual reality. It is a creation in both collective and individual minds used to define ourselves by comparison to another group. When we hate the other we are actually hating our own creation. Our own fear. We are actually hating a small piece of ourselves.

When we refuse to consort with the other, people who are not like ourselves, we refuse to face the fact that everyone doesn’t think like us. Scarier still, if we talk to these people and become their friends, we might start to realize that these beliefs are valid (do not mistake this as true/perfect/universal – just valid). Which leads to uncomfortable thoughts like I might not be right and there are alternatives.

We hate the idea of uncertainty. Of maybe being wrong. Or at least not knowing if we’re right. Not 100%. Not all the way right. It’s a really uncomfortable feeling. Being unsure and trying to justify decisions to ourselves and others based on assumptions that could possibly be wrong.

But guess what? That is a good and important feeling. It is the feeling of stretching, growing, seeking out knowledge.

Who was that moron who said “the unexamined life is not worth living” and thought the wisest man knows he knows nothing? Oh right. Socrates. He’s really old, male, white, and dead, but considering people are still listening to him after something like 2500 years, I think he might be on to something.

I’m starting to think that accepting this uncertainty while still making decisions and taking actions that hopefully lead to a good life is what learning to be a grown up is all about.

Having a friend to help you is invaluable in this task.

3) We are missing the chance at a relationship that could give us comfort and love when we need it most.
If you are thinking, what is this person talking about? I don’t hate them. They hate me!

Congratulations. That is going to solve exactly nothing. You are condemning those you hate to ignorance, meanness, and fear whilst simultaneously giving yourself the same. If we all continue to hate and push away people we believe are not like us, it’s going to be a nasty unpleasant life for everyone forever. Yippee.

It is a cold, hard, lonely world out there. Who are we nattering little nincompoops to be pissing away love and friendship?

*Thank you to my dearest Elbie Toes for listening to me cry and complain about this for two days (or is it 11 years?) straight. We may not agree on much of anything politically, but I love you all the same.

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