Logging into Facebook, I see Corbyn memes jostling for space with videos warning of the Islamisation of Europe; petitions in support of transgender rights alongside disdainful cartoons about “SJWs.” I have liberal friends, conservative friends, communist friends, and ultra-reactionary friends. This is how I like it. It makes life interesting.
Infinitely more eminent people than myself have enjoyed the company of their ideological opposites. GK Chesterton, the Catholic reactionary, and George Bernard Shaw, the secular socialist, enjoyed a warm, lifelong camaraderie. Eric Hobsbawm, the communist historian, and Niall Ferguson, the neoconservative intellectual, were friends. After Hobsbawm’s death, Ferguson touchingly remembered that they had shared not only a love of history but an interest in modern jazz and Welsh hill.
It is sad for me when people claim to find it difficult or impossible to be friends with those who disagree with them. An American survey, for example, has found that more than 50% of Americans find it stressful to talk with people who have different opinions regarding Trump. A whopping 40% of liberals claimed that if someone had merely voted for him it would strain their friendship, while a lesser if not insignificant 13% of Republicans felt the same about friends voting for Clinton.
Why should disagreement be a stressful experience? Policies make us feel stressed because of their consequences but an individual supporting a policy has a small to non-existent impact on the world. The stakes of a disagreement, then, are trivial, unless one happens to be friends with actual politicians. One could treat it as a chance to hone one’s arguments, and to understand the nature of different opinions.
But what if our politics reflect our personalities? They can. Outright Nazis and Stalinists, for example, are often eccentric and embittered human beings. But if someone supports policies you consider ungenerous it need not mean they are ungenerous themselves. If someone supports a politician you consider dishonest they might still be a scrupulous teller of the truth. (This works, incidentally, the other way around. Self-proclaimed feminists have often treated women terribly. Thunderous moralists have often been degenerate sinners.) Another important point is that if someone supports policies that you consider stupid that does not require them to be stupid themselves. Even if you are right — and you may not be right — people are good at creating intricate rationalizations to make their beliefs and preferences seem more compelling.
This explains why very different people can be friends. The journalist Peter Hitchens is a famous advocate for drug criminalization. Still, he wrote warmly of Howard Marks, the drug smuggler and famous advocate for drug legalization. At one debate, a group of students claimed that Hitchens was a racist and demanded that he leave. “Well, if he’s going,” Marks said, “I’m going too.” With that, he took Hitchens’ arm and they marched through the door. They disagreed on drugs, but agreed on free speech. Ferguson, writing on Hobsbawm, was correct that “people can differ about big questions while agreeing about much else.”
This is especially important as for most of us politics is a small part of our lives. We have our families, and our friends, and our hobbies, and our neighborhoods, and our ambitions. Social media gives us an all-too-convenient excuse to shove our politics into our friends’ faces but we should remember that there is a great deal else to talk about and do. Why not just keep off the subject?
To be fair, this can be hard. Some people make it hard. If somebody finds it stressful to talk with someone about their politics, or even does not want to be their friend because of them, it might be less about the politics and more about the manner in which they express them. A wonderful passage in a New Yorker profile of the other famous Hitchens — Christopher, the renowned polemicist — reported on a disagreement Hitchens had had with a random stranger at a cocktail party. “I’m not trying to persuade you,” Hitchens began, “his mouth [shrinking] like a sea anemone poked with a stick,” going on to say,
“Do you think I care whether you agree with me? No. I’m telling you why I disagree with you. That I do care about. I have no further interest in any of your opinions. There’s nothing you wouldn’t make an excuse for.”
When this obscure dinner guest denied the accusation, he barreled on:
“Save it, sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me… I now know what your standards are, and now you know what mine are, and that’s all the difference—I hope—in the world.”
For Hitchens, arguing about politics was his career. Perhaps one can excuse his natural combativeness. Still, we should avoid inflicting unprovoked belligerence on people that we disagree with. It is simply not important enough to win arguments. This is not merely about avoiding insults. It is about being respectful; respectful less towards the ideas you are disagreeing with than towards the person who believes in them. I recall upsetting my own mother because I argued with such bewildering debate club intensity. What was the point of it? What did I hope to achieve?
We should also avoid being bores: loud, humorless, monomaniacal or pedantic. This is especially true in real-life conversations but also applies to our online activities. However true and important we think our opinions are, nobody wants their Facebook feeds flooded with links and memes. Many a man has left discussions thinking people could not deal with his edgy, provocative opinions when really they thought he was a dreadful bore.
Think twice, then, before lowering your opinion of a friend based on whatever policies they happen to endorse. Their ideas on healthcare should not be half as important to your friendship as their willingness to help you if you get sick. Their beliefs on law and order say much less about them than how much they will stick up for you if you are being intimidated. Their attitude towards a politician matters less than their attitude towards the people they know. Actions, as the durable phrase informs us, speak louder than words.
Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He has written stories for Flash Fiction Magazine, The London Journal of Fiction and Every Day Fiction, and essays for Quillette and Bombs and Dollars. He tweets at @bdsixsmith