Politics Got You Down?

Dear Dr. Hurd,

I totally disagree with some of my friends on many things, especially the recent election—and now the holidays are coming up and I have to be with them. Yikes! Because of my anger and frustration over what they say and think, I have become disgusted and withdrawn. Trouble is, if I expand this policy and disconnect myself from everyone with whom I disagree, I’ll have to terminate some friendships that I’ve had for a long time. What can I do? I’m so annoyed and conflicted.

Dear So Annoyed,

I don’t completely agree with the saying about not discussing politics or religion. If ideas are important to you—including political ideas—then you should not automatically give up what you value. Nor should anyone else. At the same time, it makes no sense to try and discuss ideas with anybody who either, (a) is not interested in the subject generally, or, (b) is not open to your particular perspective on the subject.

Part of the challenge is to decide what’s worth—and not worth—fighting for. Speaking for myself, I rarely defend any of the recent candidates seeking office. I frankly don’t think any of them are worth it. If you feel one of them is worth it—then fine, go for it. But everything has a cost. Just as we all have to take responsibility for deciding if it’s worth it to spend money on something, or if it’s worth it to tell someone what we really think about that dress they’re wearing—or that man they’re marrying ‘ well, the same applies to religion and politics.

A key issue here is whether your opinion is requested. There are two ways somebody might request your opinion. The first is direct and obvious: ‘Tell me what you think of such-and-such.’ This could be an opinion about someone’s dress, the man she’s marrying or even religion or politics. The second (and more common way) people will ‘solicit’ your opinion is indirect. They will simply introduce the subject. They’ll mention, for example, that they hold a particular religious or political view. Then they’ll look at you with curiosity and try to gauge your reaction. Or, perhaps they will express their view and automatically assume that you agree when, in fact, you don’t. In such a case, I think integrity and self-esteem require that you at least say, ‘I don’t agree’ or ‘I see it differently’—anything other than silence. Beyond that, you’re not required to be a crusader for your views unless you want to be, AND unless it’s worth it to you.

As the saying goes, sometimes you have to ‘pick your battles.’ Before discussions take place, you need to decide what you want to fight about, and what you don’t want to fight about. It can be frustrating to argue over particular candidates, since in the end they agree on many things, with their disagreements skillfully amplified in their desperate battle to get elected. It’s really general principles that people are fighting over, such as: Should dissension and freedom of speech be allowed or restricted? Should wealth be privately owned or publicly redistributed? Is a higher power needed to guide one’s life, or does a secular approach make more sense? While it may—or may not—be worthwhile and satisfying to discuss these general issues with people you know, it’s certainly more productive than fighting over the minutia of candidate X or candidate Y, or religion X or religion Y.

What about a person you really like and enjoy, except for this clash over politics (or whatever)? Should you lose this person over the disagreement? Is eliminating them from your life worse than standing up for what you believe? Well, maybe yes, maybe no.

You really have to take it case by case. Person by person. If you can objectively identify something healthy and enjoyable that you get out of spending time with this person, then pursue that interest and forget the bottomless quagmire of political opinion. Discuss other things you have in common (something must have brought you two together in the first place). Some people might not be open to your political opinions, but will be open to other sorts of philosophical ideas that really are more fundamental than politics anyway. Different friends offer us different things.

Don’t choose to spend time with people just because you fear loneliness. It’s not fair to them, and you won’t enjoy it anyway. If someone’s viewpoints so disgust you—and they otherwise have little else to offer—then stop wasting everyone’s time. Hold out for those who share your basic values and interests. In the meantime, read a good book.

Thomas Jefferson, who lived during rough political times and had pretty strong political views himself, advised, ‘I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.’ By and large, he’s right. If politics or religion can be set aside and perhaps other common values discovered, then why part ways?

Do watch out for one thing, though: If the disagreements are in fact symptoms of an already unhappy friendship, then you can’t blame politics and religion for its ultimate demise.