Disagreeing and Staying Friends
How do I remain friends with people whose political opinions are different from mine? In social media, I have seen quite a few sad comments by people who are no longer speaking to certain family or friends or have even gone so far as to get a divorce because the escalation of political rhetoric has taken them in.
In my own life, since about the age of 24, I have been cautious about sharing my philosophies except as stripped of their political garb. Today, I have close friends and family members who do not agree with me, and we manage to get along. Now our political climate causes me to consider these relationships. In each of them, how has our détente, so to speak, and, indeed, our friendship, come about? I think the elements involved include awareness of how individual perceptions are determined by experience and learning, respect (including refraining from waving flags), and finding common ground.
I started my adult life with what was at the time a bizarre political philosophy, though for me it was a natural outcome of my intellectual framework and the experiences I had growing up and in my college years. I went to Robert LeFevre’s Freedom School in Colorado, which influenced me to move to the extreme of being a full libertarian (though not an anarchist because I still believed in the concept of property ownership). At the University of Wisconsin, that put me in the odd position of being a former conservative who shared some common ground with hippies.
Then I got my first job, in a small town in the middle of Georgia at a historically black college. I had enough sense to realize that the black experience was different from mine. Soon, however, I was not the only white employee at our school, and I proclaimed my political philosophy at a few parties with new white faculty members. Maybe I thought others would agree or at least seriously consider my positions. That definitely did not work out! (Luckily, I believed that college professors should not impose their beliefs on students, so in the classroom, I covered elements having to do with freedom in the literature we studied but did not proselytize.)
It wasn’t long before it hit me in the head that my beliefs had been formed over a period of time based on my unique personal experiences and studies, so I not only couldn’t expect others to share my beliefs, but I also had no idea what personal experiences had formed theirs. I began to apply the concept of "associationism": we all start with a blank slate and possibly some in-born ways of thinking, and our perceptions, our unique experiences, form our ideas. From then on, I held back the urge to proclaim my libertarianism.
Fifty years later, I am still in the same small southern town, affiliated with the same historically black college, and still leaning libertarian. Over the years since 1968, I have developed strong friendships with liberal colleagues and a few old-fashioned southerners who now support the GOP. And I am speaking to most of my relatives who do not agree with me politically. This has been possible partly because we respect each other, not just as equal human beings, but also because we trust each other and because we have shared values—caring for our families; wanting to raise children to be good people; wanting to provide opportunity through education and especially college education; wanting our town to be safe and prosperous; loving animals and nature; enjoying music, movies, and books.
We are not perfect. Sometimes exasperation produces a bad note of political comment. But I believe we all realize that each of us has been formed by his or her upbringing and experience, so when we don’t agree, we give each other a pass.