A dear friend from high school days, a strong supporter of President Trump, wrote wistfully a while ago on a Facebook message thread shared by a few classmates, including me.
Another old friend had posted a statement highly critical of the president, citing personal and professional failures and what she considered callous and undemocratic policies.
The president “is not perfect,” my conservative friend responded, “but he loves our country and no one can dispute his many accomplishments for our country.”
And, she added, “even though we see things differently, I love my democratic friends.”
I’m pretty sure she meant Democratic, as in not Republican. I know she doesn’t consider herself undemocratic. Nor do I. Nor would I ever think to describe her politics as fascist, which is a term (like the labels socialist, communist, traitor or idiot) thrown around too easily these days in the heat of partisan divide.
We are divided – perhaps more so than at any time since the Civil War.
It’s not just about the president. A mainstream Christian church is splitting over the acceptance (or rejection) of gay members. We argue whether last Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show was vulgar, not family-friendly, or an inspiring display of athleticism, musical talent, Latin culture and the power and potential of women and girls.
We hail or deride Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish climate activist, usually on the basis of what we believe about climate change and its causes. (“I want to slap her,” one outraged critic commented on a local Facebook post. “She’s just another mouthpiece working off the left’s game plan,” another wrote.)
Maria Popova, who writes thoughtful essays on an internet blog (brainpickings.org), wrote recently that in such divisive times as these, what’s wanted is “intelligent, kind-hearted and considered disagreement … to marry firm moral conviction with a spirit of goodwill and the porousness necessary for appraising other perspectives in order to evolve one’s own.”
In simpler terms, honest thought, decency and a willingness to acknowledge the other fellow might have a point.
But there are times it’s just not worth the struggle.
I am increasingly disinclined to debate a charged social or political issue, partly because so many people want to argue and “win” rather than debate or discuss. For many people, accepting someone else’s point or perspective seems a sign of weakness. They don’t listen, preferring to prepare their next line of attack. They disparage, impugn motive, question patriotism, and they try to shame. Outraged by opposition, they want to slap someone, even a schoolgirl.
Frankly, I have grown weary of arguing, especially when talk devolves into “Yeah, but …” and endless, meaningless traipsing through the weeds. I’m tired of the name-calling. Want to end a conversation with me? Call me a snowflake. Or a libtard. Or try to tar me with labels you don’t really understand.
My conservative high school friend would not call me names. We don’t talk politics much, knowing that the gap between us on some of the most tangled issues – including the meaning and legacy of Donald Trump – is wide. But we sat together at the recent funeral of another classmate, talked about our lives and the time when we were young. She sang “Jesus Loves Me” in a beautiful voice, and I told her so. As we parted, we shared an honest, caring hug.
But there are times, Popova wrote, when “it is unsound to engage with another whose values are so antithetical to one’s own that the collision is bound to shatter one’s sanity rather than build common ground.”
She cites as example the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who in 1962 wrote to the English fascist Oswald Mosely. Unrepentant even after Hitler, Mussolini and World War II, Mosely had sent Russell some of his writings and suggested they get together to discuss “the merits of fascism.” Russell’s response “stands as a manifesto for the right not to engage in a debate with a counterpart so morally misaligned with oneself as to guarantee not only the self-defeating futility of such engagement but its detrimental cost to one’s own sanity,” Popova wrote.
Dear Sir Oswald,
Thank you for your letter and for your enclosures. I have given some thought to our recent correspondence. It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellent to one’s own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterised the philosophy and practice of fascism.
I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.
I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He now writes for the Sunday edition of the Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.