September 6, 2012 in Washington Voices

Front Porch: Politics has ended many friendships

By The Spokesman-Review
 

At my own peril for going there again, I once again bring up the topic of friendships dissolving over differences in political viewpoints. I do so because I have new (to me at least) information.

I wrote on this subject two weeks ago, about how I’ve been unfriended after twice asking an old high school friend to stop sending me unsolicited third-party politically themed material. I was always glad to talk about things – her words and my words, even where we differed – but I didn’t want to be the recipient of unwanted material from other sources sent without her own insights accompanying them. That’s not a conversation; that’s a siege. She didn’t take kindly to that, and so I’m now out on an iceberg somewhere.

Anyhow, after writing about how bad I felt that a friendship could be so damaged over politics, I received dozens and dozens of emails from readers, the most I’ve ever gotten for anything I’ve written. Always glad to get them, even when they take me to task. But what was so striking to me was that most of the writers offered their own stories of estrangement over things political. I had no idea this kind of rending asunder of relationships was so widespread in America today. Oh sure, I am well aware of how deep the political divisions in the country are, but I was kind of bowled over that so many friendships have been jettisoned over these divides, that ideology trumps friendship and family.

Though most messages tended to be from liberals or self-identified middle-of-the-roaders (from both parties), some were definitely from conservatives. One woman told me how her extreme liberal friend of long standing – a person with whom she’d always been able to communicate and exchange ideas – “just went off the deep end” and fell into jargon, ending by calling her a stupid racist, a term the writer felt was used just to shut her down. She found the onslaught so hurtful and disrespectful that she just quit communicating with her friend. “I didn’t want to return the favor of hurting her,” she wrote. “I just shut up and went away.”

As I said, most responses were from the other side of the spectrum, with tales of how friends and siblings, even adult children and their parents, are now estranged because of their progressive views. A number of them kept receiving blast emails from friends, now former friends, who refused to stop sending them, even when requested. Several of the recipients of the unsolicited material sent back information on sites for fact-checking, which were rejected out of hand. One woman kept replying to the email barrages from a long-time church friend with kindly Christian messages and unsuccessful requests for a truce.

Another woman wrote her brother a long letter in advance of their planned visit and asked if he could restrain his political diatribes for the week they would be together. He said he could, but it turned out he couldn’t or wouldn’t. There’s now a chill between them.

Some of the emails that came from decidedly right of center were quite revealing. I appreciated the ones explaining the fervor they felt over the issues, and several offered their sympathy that political passions had caused a breach between my friend and me. Those were good conversations to have, and I am at peace with the fact that good people can hold differing political viewpoints. We’re allowed to in America, right? But a couple of the communications contained apocalyptic warnings that the coming election is really an existential referendum on America, a fight for its very soul – painting a choice in which (their words) the nation will remain a republic with the Constitution as its foundation or become some kind of socialist hell hole devoid of rights and freedoms. Armageddon, anyone?

There was a significant amount of faith language intertwined with the political philosophies put forth in this group of strident positions, most of which pointing to the “truth” with take-no-prisoners old-school missionary zeal. Some of it was pretty unforgiving, as one reader summed up: “It is truth that has destroyed your friendship. The truth doesn’t change because you don’t agree with it. Facts/truth exist whether you are capable or not of understanding and dealing with them.”

How nice to be so sure of everything. But I guess you have to be if your politics are part of a messianic crusade. And some of these folks are now sending me some of the aforementioned email blasts. Ironic, isn’t it? I think that conflating politics with a religious imperative to bring sinners into the fold may well be what propels the sending of unsolicited third-party communications and relentless political evangelizing – even when the recipients beg the senders to cease and desist – to the point where it becomes offensive and rude, and estrangement results.

I’ve come to think (I was tempted to say believe) that this political-religious integration makes us now see another person’s core values as being somehow unclean should they differ from our own – an uncleanness that must be railed against and driven from the marketplace of discourse. Convert or be gone.

Good God (and I mean that sincerely), how did we come to this?

Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@ comcast.net. Previous columns are available at spokesman.com/ columnists.

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