Imagine a group of college-age friends who grew up together. They are all figuring out what their path in life is. Nearly all of them, of course, are going the conventional routes: business, teaching, medicine, technology, trades, and the like. They want to be respectable, earning members of the workforce until they retire. Generally speaking, you would say they are a group of very stable people.
There are two outliers in their group, though. One friend has decided that she wants to follow her passion for the arts and become a painter. She’s not exactly sure how she will make it work financially, but she is a dreamer and has faith it will work out. The other friend has decided he is going to become an estate lawyer and make a fortune scamming old people out of their money. His goal is to make money, and he doesn’t care about the human cost.
How, then, does their stable group of friends react to these two who are straying from the conventional path?
As for the artist/dreamer, they are concerned for her but don’t dislike or distrust her for her decision. They dismiss her, in a way, as being too whimsical, not sensible enough, foolish for choosing the unstable path. They warn her about the starving artist lifestyle she is choosing, reminding her that she will be without health insurance or a 401K plan. The stable crew feels a little bad for their artist friend, even, as she “just doesn’t get it” and “lives in a fantasyland.” Her heart is in the right place, though, so they don’t dislike her. But they also don’t take her seriously and are relieved there aren’t lots more like her. She is a bit dangerous to their stability. Lovable, but dangerous.
The scamming lawyer, on the other hand, is now viewed by the friends as dangerous but unlovable. It is clear that his heart is not in the right place. A moral failing has entered the picture, and their sensibilities are offended by that. They are disappointed. They realize they can no longer trust him the way they thought they could. A wall has gone up in their relationship, one that is probably too steep to climb in order to build that relationship back to whole again.
The artist’s flaw, according to the group, is that she feels too much, she lets her heart guide her. The lawyer’s flaw is that he is heartless, callous. The artist can be forgiven for veering off the path of the rest of the group, but the lawyer cannot.
You are probably wondering why in the world I am having you think about these people. Well, lately I have been doing a lot of thinking about the individual people in my life, how I interact with each, and whether they seem more like someone who I want closer to me or someone who I need to distance myself from. I am oversensitive to just about everything, but especially to the prospect of spending time with people I think poorly of. I am repulsed by that and have left jobs and relationships because of it.
With the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, we have this magical way of reconnecting and staying in touch with so many more people than ever before. People from your past—high school and college friends, former colleagues—and even people whom you have never met in person. You can actually learn a lot about some of them. Sometimes more than you want to.
As you well know, it is political season. And while many of the people I know–whether intimately, in person, or online–tend to reveal little to nothing about their political views, there are certainly others who really put themselves out there for their candidate or cause. They reveal their positions on some topics that truly matter to me. That’s where it can get uncomfortable.
As I have watched other people’s interactions and tried to understand my own reactions to people on the other end of the political spectrum from me—I am quite liberal on just about all of the big topics—I see patterns emerging. So, I am developing my own pet theory on how a relationship between a liberal person and a conservative person plays out when their views are made known to the other. (Keep in mind that I am well aware that the people of the world hold a zillion varieties of viewpoints, and that the liberal and conservative in my theory are, by necessity, caricatured people that are to the far left and far right, respectively.) Check this out and be ready to help me tinker with my theory by sharing your personal pattern of reactions.
Remember the artist/dreamer of the friend group? Well, in my developing theory, the way the group viewed the artist is the way my conservative character views my liberal character. He (the conservative) sees her (the liberal’s) flaw as her “bleeding heart,” always thinking the government should help everyone and right wrongs. In his eyes, she is leading with her heart, which is foolish and impractical, because of course we can’t foot the bill for other people’s problems. Her insistence that we can is more annoying than anything. But at least her heart is in the right place, so he can’t despise her for that. He tolerates her.
To the liberal, on the other hand, the conservative is looked upon the way our friend group reacted to the scamming lawyer. She sees him as having abandoned his heart in favor of his pocketbook. His is a callous perspective, ignoring the plight of others and even basic human rights (I have been using universal health coverage in my ponderings, but we could use things like capital punishment, women’s health issues, LGBT rights, or the Syrian refugee crisis, too). He has taken moral issues and turned them instead into economic ones, ignoring hearts and souls in favor of financial calculations. This is incredibly disappointing—even hurtful—to the liberal. Her feelings are hurt by the seeming callousness of the conservative’s positions. Her sensibilities are offended. A trust has been broken. There is a “How could you?” in her reaction, as in, “How could you devalue human life this way?” The liberal does not want to believe someone’s heart could be so cold. It is a devastating realization. She is effectively done with him.
So, at the end of it, it looks as though the conservative would be more tolerant of the liberal than the liberal is of the conservative. The conservative sees the liberal as a failure of reason and practicality, whereas the liberal sees the conservative as a failure of character and conscience. Her failure is acceptable; his is not. He can continue with her in his life, just as the stable group of friends could keep the artist. The liberal, however, no longer feels any interest in fraternizing with the conservative, seeing him as the friend group sees the scamming lawyer: morally bankrupt. With the trust broken, for her, the relationship is as good as over.
So, that’s the theory at this point. Like I said, the positions are probably a bit extreme for most people. But I have to admit, the liberal side is mostly a projection of stuff coming up from my own heart in these situations. I recognized the feelings I was having in response to all of these political posts as well as my conversations with different people, and the theory emerged from me trying, mostly through my daily journal entries, to make sense of the feelings. I wanted some clarity, which is what journaling has always brought me.
This process has helped me to better understand my internal workings, as well as my evolving relationships with family members, friends, and online connections. I have to admit it is a bit disturbing to see the final product being a desire to end, or at least pull back from, a number of relationships that I had once enjoyed and valued, even if on a more superficial level. But I can’t fake it, either. As I mentioned early on, it is a weakness of mine that I am oversensitive. Another one is that I am stubborn. That combination makes me tough to hang with. If you break my trust, I don’t easily let it go. (And yes, I recognize the irony in the fact that despite seeing my political positions as more enlightened and compassionate than the other side, I am the one who ends up being more intolerant in the actual relationship. I guess personal boundaries come with a cost.)
I suppose I hope for other people’s sake that they can make peace with people who hold vastly different views more easily than I can, that they can either forgive or compartmentalize their politics. Maybe it is like my theory—the conservatives can do it better than the liberals can—or maybe it is only me. In any case, the theory-making helped me to know myself better. Even if the results have shaken me a bit, I am glad I took the dive.
How about you? How would you categorize your reactions to people whose views are starkly opposed to yours? It is probably helpful to start by locating yourself along the political spectrum. Are you fairly far in one direction overall, or pretty moderate? Is there one particular issue that you hold an extra-strong opinion about? Can disagreement on that issue trigger an emotional response from you? If you are on the conservative side of the spectrum, does my proposed theory resonate with you at all, i.e. do you find yourself being dismissive of liberals because their “bleeding hearts” make their proposals too impractical and expensive for your tastes, even if you tolerate them because they mean well? If that is not how you experience it, what is your reaction to someone you know who proposes a liberal idea? Do you find that the liberal ideas fail your test morally, or is it more logically or practically? If you are more left-leaning, does my theory resonate with you? Have you had the experience, in talking with conservatives about these issues, of being so dismayed—even hurt—by the callousness and lack of compassion in their positions to the point that you no longer wish to socialize with them? Have I gone too far in that side of the theory? Is your experience more like I described for the other side: it is frustrating that the conservative disagrees with you, but that has no bearing on how you rate their character and how much time you want to spend with them? If you are someone who is kind of in the middle on the issues—conservative on some, liberal on others—do you find yourself still leaning toward one side in terms of which friends you like or respect more, or is it also a pretty even mix? Is there something more morally upstanding about one side or the other? If you had to choose between spending your time with someone who is hopelessly impractical or someone who is immoral, who would you choose? Do you mostly try to avoid political discussions with people in your social groups so you aren’t forced to make these kinds of character evaluations and relationship changes? I think most of us do that at least some of the time, because let’s face it, it’s risky to wade into these waters. Is that an unhealthy denial, or is that simply a wise way to make life bearable in your little corner of the world? I am dying to know how you navigate this stuff! So please, leave me a reply and let me know: How do you handle your relationships with people who differ from you on important political issues?
Claim your amazing self,
P.S. If today’s letter got you examining your relationships and how your political opinions shape your friend group and your tolerance for others, I hope you will share it. If you want these letters in your Inbox as soon as they are published, I invite you to sign up for the email. Peace and Love, my friend.