Political leanings should not be the only thing that determines friendships

Thanks to social media we are discovering that marriages are falling apart because husband and wife have different political ideologies. Children want to disown their own parents because they are not woke enough. Come election cycle and many friendships come under sever strain due to political differences. Needless to say, it was not always like this. Politics used to be a private matter and in an instant, it has become front and center. Let’s face it: There is no going back to those blissful days. Now we are asking questions we never would’ve imagined only a few years ago: Can you be friends with someone who likes a political party you oppose?

Obviously, not everyone who agrees with your political ideology is a good person and not everyone who disagrees is bad. Let’s keep aside moral judgements of good and bad and look at chemistry and compatibility. Friendship and companionship go beyond political issues. How are your tastes when it comes to movies, music, travel, reading, food rather than what do you think of a politician?

We are all experiencing the tribalism routinely, the polarization and the absolute hate based purely on political views. A small aspect of of our personality and thinking has somehow become the whole. You support Trump, so you must be a racist. You support Biden, you must be a communist. You support Modi, so you must be a narcissist. You support Kejriwal, you must be a freeloader. The obvious formula is take political differences, amplify those and make that the only factor in defining you as a person. The assumptions we make about someone based on one simple answer on who they support in the next elections are incredible. I do this routinely.

One of the worst reasons to lose a good friend is a difference of opinion on a political issue. This is not an either or situation. In my opinion, it is not only possible, but very desirable to have friends who need not necessarily share same views as yours when it comes to various political and ideological issues. Doing this used to be the norm which didn’t require any special skill. Now, it requires some thought, some skills and following some rules or principles. What I am offering is not some profound insight or in depth analysis. I arrived at these based on simple trial and error. Sometimes they work well. But first, let’s talk about my own experience on this issue

I was born in a family that supported Congress party, both on my father’s side and my mother’s side. On my father’s side, the local MLA, won unanimously sometimes. Things changed later on one side. I have seen that transition. I also run a business where all my partners have opposing political views as mine. We have heated arguments whenever we meet. We remain good friends. Our families are very friendly to each other. We go on holidays together. Our diametrically opposing political views have never come in the way of our business decisions or operations. I routinely hire people who I later learn have differing political views but that has no bearing on their career growth. I remain friends with many who don’t agree with me on politics.  Let me be clear: This isn’t some virtue. It is not special. Neither I nor my business partners and friends possess some special talent or skill.

This tribalism is not sustainable in my view. I am no trend spotter, just a feeling. Plus, no point being pessimistic anyways. How will it end? How much worse is it going to get? What will make it end? These are hard questions and my guess is as good as yours. I just want to focus on how do we cope in the meanwhile based on some simple rules I have been using. There is no science or date to support these rules. They seem to work for me. There is no logic in the order they appear

  1. Reading: Not tweets, but books. Read as much diverse political ideology as possible. On Social media, don’t follow people only to troll, but sometimes, put on a hat of “They might be saying something right or useful” One of the reasons Jordan Peterson is so good in debates is because he is well read.ourself
  2. Be outspoken about the fact that political differences are normal: I say this multiple times in any conversation about politics, that differences are normal. Go into a debate thinking the onus on cooling things down is on yourself
  3. Avoid debating people who are on the extreme and make things personal rather than discussing issues. There was a time, calling a political opponent and enemy was frowned upon. Now, we have gone beyond enemy. Some believe that you are an evil person simply for having a particular political view. Stay away from such people. Like I said earlier, you don’t need that many people to maintain sanity. 
  4. Never pretend to agree with others just to make them feel better or blend in. This is the worst mistake. Don’t be agreeable just to have a pleasant conversation. It is going to be very unpleasant for you.
  5. As much as possible, debate people with common goals rather than on vague issues. I found that many people have common goals. Some do have goals like ‘uproot the system’ ‘Bring a revolution’ and so on. Discuss weather and movies with such people.
  6. As much as possible, don’t get into group discussions. Keep it one on one. The last election cycle, I made the mistake of getting into a group discussion. Some in the group took an opposing position simply because they were friends with the person I was arguing with. Later in private, they claimed they had to do it for the sake of friendship and didn’t really believe what they were saying.
  7. Mainstream/Corporate media is truly a negative force. They have incentive to drive tribalism. Look at American media. NYT, WaPo, and MSNBC benefited a lot during Trump presidency. Fox benefited a lot during Obama presidency. They are truly merchants of hate. Watch them with extreme skepticism and cynicism. I have also noticed that watching news along with a friend with different political leanings is a bad bad idea. Whenever I find myself in this situation, I put my headphones on and listen to something else. 
  8. Don’t argue on social media with friends, especially in twitter. I see tweets of friends that I sometimes feel compelled to respond. In the recent past, I have somehow managed to not do this. Twitter is not a platform for debate and discussion. What I did on FB is more straightforward. I don’t discuss politics at all and I routinely mute those who predominantly post political content, no matter what their leanings.
  9. How to unwind. A debate with a friend is much more exhausting than one with a stranger. You have to deal with a lot of dissonance, anger and frustration that lingers on. One thing someone taught me is to watch good comedy instead of sitting and reflecting on the conversation. I generally lean towards good American standup comedians or Seinfeld. Sure, you can do meditation etc, but that doesn’t work for me. 
  10. This is my most important rule: When talking to a friend who doesn’t agree with you on politics, never open or end the conversation with politics. If you start with politics, that’ll be the only thing you’ll discuss. And if you close the conversation on politics, you will feel miserable for many many hours. I find it difficult to sleep even when drunk when I break this rule. 

Following these principles means the universe of friends you can have a discussion on politics shrinks dramatically but how many true friends we have anyway. We don’t need that many to maintain much needed sanity.

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.