Can we be friends with our political opponents?

Today’s post is a follow up to my last post on political polarisation. If you haven’t read that one yet, click here. Today I’ll be talking more closely about how polarisation and differing political opinions affect our relationships and friendships.

We have all become very politically saturated in society. Politics takes up a large part of regular conversation, it’s no longer taboo to talk politics, it’s become part of regular discourse. With that, politics has saturated our conversation, including with our friends and family. So, when our friends have different political opinions to our own, can we get along even if we have different political ideals? I’ll be discussing this today.

Politics is personal, its our identity…

Politics has become very much personal over the years. It’s not just a passing remark to say you voted for a different political party, in some cases its an insult or violation to our political identity. To say you voted for a different political party, is to say I value this over what you value. When a certain policy effects the way we live out our lives, for example, LGBTQ+ rights, racial equality, gender pay gaps or low-income support, it can feel very offensive, and like a personal attack, when someone says they do not believe in a policy that protects those rights. In that case it can feel very personal when someone opposes your political ideals and values.

Our political values are becoming more and more a part of who we are and how we choose to live, disagreeing with that is like saying I do not agree with the way you live your life, and we take that very personally, because it is something that defines who we are and what we believe in.

Friends who don’t support your human rights and values…aren’t friends

I think it’s best to get the obvious out the way. If someone’s political values and beliefs mean that they do not support your fundamental human rights, then they are not a friend to be keeping around. You simply cannot disagree on human rights, and be friends. If someone is saying any of the following statements to you and they correlate with a part of your identity, then they are not a friend.

  • ‘I like you, but I don’t believe in gay marriage’
  • ‘You’re great, but, I don’t think that our governmental systems restrict people of colour.’
  • ‘I think that the gender pay gap is just something women are complaining about’
  • ‘You are transgender though, you shouldn’t be allowed to use the women’s bathroom if you aren’t biologically a woman.’

The person telling you that, is not your friend. That person is supporting policies that restrict how you live, they are dictating your place in society. They are choosing to ignore your rights and on an even more personal note as a friend, your individual struggles, they don’t support you because they don’t value your rights or your political identity. That is not okay, they have to go. Overall, even communicating with someone who doesn’t support your basic human rights is next to impossible, so being friends is just a no go zone.

I think in situations such as this, you get those people who think that just because identity politics doesn’t impact them, they don’t have to worry. If you’re a white heterosexual man, society was built for you to thrive, there’s a fat chance you’ve never thought about your identity or your place in society, because it’s never impacted a decision you’ve had to make. Due to this mindset, thinking about other peoples rights may not cross your mind, you don’t have to worry because it doesn’t affect your life. But, other peoples lives are affected. Even if you don’t need to worry about your own rights, you should worry about others. You don’t have to be a part of the minority to care about the rights of the minority. If you don’t and your friends are part of that minority, it is not okay to not support their rights just because ‘you don’t have to worry’, open your eyes and support other people in society, not just yourself. It’s not a good enough reason to not have to think about how political policy impacts other peoples lives just because it doesn’t impact yours. If you have friends that are oppressed or restricted by a party your vote for, your a bad friend.

Do not be friends with people who do not support your basic rights, this shouldn’t even be political. This is not a debate topic. You can’t compromise when it comes to human rights. You definitely can’t be friends with people who disagree with your rights, that’s for sure.

But what about small disagreements about politics, that aren’t close to our identity?

When it comes to politics or areas in policy we aren’t so passionate about or focused on, we can have a fairly healthy debate and even disagreement with friends. The likelihood of this discussion is that you will still be friends at the end because your identity is not so closely attached to the policy, or you have less passion associated to the area.

Let’s imagine you are talking to your friend about an area in current political discourse that neither of you have strong opinions about, if they were to object to your opinion you would not feel particularly upset or attacked by their disagreement. If you and your friend do not strongly lean either way you may end up being convinced by your friends opinion or you may mutually agree to disagree. Either way you carry on the friendship with that person because you both respect eachothers opinion, even when you have minor disagreements.

The main reason this communication was successful was because you and your friend were both fairly neutral about the topic anyway, you may not agree, but you were not on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum. If however, your friend was to say they didn’t think the recent transgender rights reform was important and you or a close friend or family member was transgender and this topic was important to you, you would feel very attacked by this comment. You are no longer discussing a part of politics that you feel neutral about. You feel strongly about this topic and a friend disagreeing with transgender reform feels like an attack on values that you deem important.

We see this in multiple different scenarios. You may not feel bothered about the way the UK trades with other countries, but you care strongly about protecting low income families. In that case, when someone debates with you about foreign policy you are fairly neutral and engage in healthy debate with friends or family, but when someone challenges you about free school meals or argues that we should increase the charge of transport for kids to get to school, you will not want to entertain a debate such as this because you are passionate about it and you are not willing to compromise on something that is so important to you.

When things are close to our identity or our political values they aren’t up for debate and in some cases, we are not willing to entertain an opponent because, like in the last example, having free school meals is simply essential. There are things we view as ‘not up for debate’ and when someone tries to challenge this, it attacks our literal political identity. We take it very personally.

In that case, if our friends disagree with some of our opinions about politics that we don’t prioritise highly, that friendship can continue, but if a friend doesn’t support the same core values as us, we can find it very hard to be friends with them because our political values and identity are too different. The way we live our lives and the values we hold close to our hearts should be supported by our friends, not challenged.

Concluding thoughts

I think we can debate about policy we don’t hold close to our political identity and if a friend doesn’t agree about a policy that isn’t a number one priority to us, then that’s okay, as long as they do support what is important to us. A friend can’t be your friend but also not support policy that determines your rights as an individual and your freedom in society.

Surrounding yourself with friends that have the same core values as you is important. Especially when those values are so closely tied to your identity. This is why we surround ourselves with people who support or vote for the same party as we do, because we share important values about how society should be and the livelihood of others. However, this is also the reason why polarisation continues to divide us.

Pro-life supporters signs.

Finding a common ground between people who disagree on core political values can be difficult, some policies completely contradict the other, for example, pro-choice and pro-life, wealth inequality and lowering taxes for the richer of society. These different sides of policy often struggle to find a middle ground because they are both on the opposite end of the debate. I’m going to look into this a little more in a post to come with the help of the YouTube channel Jubilee and their series called ‘Middle Ground’ where they put people in the same room with completely different opinions and make them debate, some outcomes are really not what you expect.

Pro-choice supporters signs.

That being said, realistically we can’t be friends with someone who is polar opposite to our political beliefs because we both would impose values onto eachother that don’t correlate with the way we want to live our life. I myself could not be friends with someone who doesn’t believe in LGBTQ+ rights, racial equality or women’s rights because that means the other person is willing to oppress those communities, even giving them the time of day sends shivers down my spine. Learning how to communicate with people who don’t believe in the same thing as we do is important if we are to see change in our society, so I am hoping that looking at how people do find middle ground when they disagree on so much will be insightful, so make sure to come back to that article!

Today’s post felt a little like a ramble of my never ending thoughts since writing my dissertation and how we can reconcile communication with such different people when they really are sooo different, but I hope you still enjoyed it! 🙂

Political polarisation and the future of democracy

Today I’m going to be discussing a topic that has become part of mainstream conversation recently, and in the last couple of years in political discourse, polarisation. This is a hugely important topic to be talking about, especially in today’s political climate. The reason why political polarisation is so necessary for us to talk about is because it threatens the longevity of democracy and the way we communicate with eachother. I have been planning on writing this post since I created this blog and I think with the recent US election, the idea of polarisation could not be more prevalent right now.

At university I focused a lot of my learning around political philosophy so naturally when the time came for me to pick a dissertation topic…I choose politics. My dissertation was about voter ignorance and the effects political polarisation has on our ability to communicate and engage in political discourse. I looked into an argument that critically evaluated the sustainability of democracy in our current political climate. I assessed how valid this argument was and explored ways to combat ignorance and to limit polarisation. Political philosophy was, and still is one of my favourite areas to read, write and talk about, so I hope you find todays article interesting and insightful!

What is polarisation and why does it happen?

Polarisation is when we intensify our beliefs and values because we are surrounded by likeminded people. When we communicate with like-minded people, we begin to hold our beliefs and political opinions in a higher regard. We become a more extreme version of ourselves.

In some cases, we have a strong reason to shift in intensity of our view, we may have been supplied with actual facts and information that gives us a reason to intensify our beliefs.

In other cases, we are merely surrounding ourselves with people who have the same opinion as our own, for obvious reasons this will increase our confidence. We place ourselves into an echo-chamber that is biased towards what we already believe. People are affirming our opinion instead of challenging it.

Another reason why our opinions can polarise is due to the internet and our social environment. Our environments are organised around our lifestyle, identity, and preferences. Politics has worked its way into our identity, because of this, we are more likely to socialise with people who share the same political beliefs as us, meaning we are constantly communicating with people who agree with us. We aren’t being challenged to revaluate our views; we are merely confirming what we already believe. A study I looked into for my dissertation even suggested that people who share the same political opinions are likely to shop at the same places, creating an even bigger divide between us and our opponents, even in the way we live out our daily lives.

As for online, this environment is personalised to what we support. Imagine you come across a tweet that has over 50k likes and is supporting your political belief. This will affirm to you that the belief is worth holding because other people agree with you. You will then hold the belief in a higher regard, making you more extreme. The internet has become a polarisation machine of other people online affirming their original beliefs. We know that our social media suggests certain content to us that we like, so when this comes to our political opinions, we are constantly suggested posts and tweets that are similar to our political values. We agree more and more, without being challenged, furthering our extremity. We live in our own personalised bubbles.

How does polarisation influence the way we communicate?

Effective argumentation and communication cannot exist in a society where its citizens are polarised. Polarisation leads to deep divides. If our opinion is challenged when we are polarised, we cannot effectively compromise or communicate with our opponent. We view these people as completely absurd. In my dissertation, I referenced a recent Pew study from the US, in that study people described their political opponents as ‘misguided, unintelligent, dishonest and immoral.” Even further than this ‘a threat to the nation’. We don’t even want to engage with our opponents. We view our opposition as almost dumb or naïve to have the opinions that they hold. For me personally, in what world would you want to remove access to healthcare or protection for the transgender community? To think that way appears oppressive and malignant to me, but to my opponents they are their ideologies. When we view someone in this way there is absolutely no way, we would want to productively communicate with them or compromise. This only furthers us into our group identity and bridges an even greater gap between those with opposing ideals.

These graphs above and below, show that overtime in the US polarisation had let to even further shifts in the divide between republicans and democrats in their ideology. The republican party becomes even more far-right and the democratic party becomes even more far-left. This is because the parties have adapted to the increase in polarisation; democrats are aiming to become way more progressive to keep up with Black Lives Matter, women’s reproductive rights, gender pay gaps, transgender rights, ending wealth inequality etc. Whilst republicans have become far more right leaning and conservative with immigration laws, white supremacy, lower taxes and actively working against progressive rights. As these two parties continue to shift apart it becomes even harder for them to communicate because their values and ideology could not be more different. The other party works directly against the other.

Something I found particularly interesting in my dissertation is that polarisation even affects the way people interpret information. We don’t even believe the facts that are given to us, we are so stubborn and stuck to our view, we will believe anything that supports our belief, even if it is baseless claims and we will reject everything that supports our opposition, even if it is hard evidence. We see this right now in America with people believing baseless claims of voter fraud, purely because it will protect their own views and discourage the opposing one. If we don’t even believe hard facts, then how are we supposed to reason with people?

Reasoned communication is something we cannot properly do when we are polarised. Reasons are not required for people to shift in extremity of their views; by merely agreeing with someone’s views they can hold their belief with more confidence. Consequently, we are left with a society of people who hold their political belief with a huge amount of confidence, yet cannot adequately provide reasons as to why, nor can they competently reason with other individuals to defend their unjustified views. All we end up having is an abundance of baseless claims and assumptions that cannot further a conversation or any productive political discourse. We have two radicalising sides of the political spectrum that are furthering away from one another, leading to growing resentment and division.

Where does this leave us and democracy?

If we can’t fix this it will only get worse, we will divide even further, which is the conclusion I made in my dissertation. Communication is everything and unfortunately, we are in a very toxic relationship with our democracy and our political discourse. If we can’t learn how to communicate with people who disagree with us and compromise, democracy will fail us.

Polarisation is becoming rapidly uncontrollable; it completely limits our democratic capacity and does create harsh political divides and these divides do undermine democracy. Whether or not we can reconcile is a whole other matter but as we continue to become more extreme and further leaning in our beliefs, communication will only get worse and so will the divide.

Democracy can only function when citizens reason and engage with each other and are open to criticism. In our political climate people are in no way open to criticism or opposing views. We can only hope that changes in administrations and governmental practices will allow us to heal and steer towards a place where we can communicate effectively and reason with eachother.

If we look at the US election, Biden’s win does bring hope that the US can steer towards a place where productive communication can happen, and everyone’s voices can be heard. But the election was tight, Trumpism has not gone away and the divide between democrats and republicans is a bitter one. There are still millions of people in the US who essentially hate democrats and vice versa, they both believe that the other party will destroy the country. These types of people cannot effectively communicate, and it has led to a sour division is America. Without healing that division, it will get violent and democracy won’t be able to support everyone anymore. The way we communicate must get better for the sake of democracy.

But how do you reconcile with someone who doesn’t even support your rights as a human being? Can we effectively communicate with people who have such different political opinions and values to our own? Have we already become too polarised? Politics is very personal; we all have our own political identity. I’ll be looking into this possibility of reconciliation in my next article, so be sure to return or follow to check that out!

I hope you enjoyed todays post and found it informative. Maybe you’ll walk away from this with slightly more of an open mind and a readiness to communicate with someone who challenges your own views. Unless they completely disagree with your basic human rights, in which case…we do not negotiate with terrorists, but I’ll save that for next time!