An Unfortunate Turn Of Events

A few days ago, a close friend and I had a disagreement; it was a decidedly political disagreement, and unfortunately for both of us it turned bitter.  As you can probably guess, if you’ve read many of my posts, I lean towards the liberal side of things, politically.  However, I have made and continue to make public statements decrying things I don’t like about the left’s politics, attitudes, and approaches.  I used to be conservative, then aligned with the libertarian party, and have ended up where I am now: left of center on nearly every issue but with reservations about (and public criticisms of) the extreme elements on this side.

I’ve arrived at this position through a combination of maturation, raising two wonderful children, coming out as openly atheist, bisexual, and transgender, examining things around me in some detail, reading quite a lot, and investigating stories to see if there’s supporting evidence instead of just instantly sharing or commenting on social media posts. I also do indeed read things that I disagree strongly with; I am a firm believer in understanding all sides of an issue as much as possible. I have never unfriended a single person based on religious or political differences on social media. I do not and have never subscribed to or consumed news or information from any single source, or purely from sources slanted or biased towards one political affiliation or another.

As I’ve gotten older I have made a conscious decision to not keep my mouth shut on issues that are important to me and to society.  I have also decided that I will not sit idly by while people make demonstrably false and/or derogatory statements. If someone were to make such statements about me, I would hope that my friends, or anyone with a conscience really, would try to correct the error.  I’ve written elsewhere (including on this blog) about why & how I think we humans are all connected; having a willingness to extend oneself to correct mistakes of this sort is an expression of that belief.  Where I may sometimes fall short on this is by reacting too quickly or too harshly, by failing to consider the feelings and motives of others, or by ascribing such to them that assumes a dark nature or ill intent.

If my friend happens to be reading this: please understand that I still consider you as a friend and would help you in any way I could; also, please read this entire post only when you have time to consider what I’m saying carefully and without distraction – read it when you’re at home in the evening relaxing with your kitties and our favorite drink. I’m saying what’s in my heart and in my head. This blog is how I process many things in my life, and I hope this writing doesn’t make you angry (or angrier!) at me. Out of respect and deep affection for you I have thought a lot about this, and it’s my hope that the words I set down here, for all to see, make clear where I was (and continue to be) coming from. If it seems harsh and clinical, I apologize, but as I’ve told you before more than once, I have closed my heart off for the most part, so this is what’s left talking. I want to make sure that I set down my thoughts on this while they are fresh in my mind.

Back to the general audience: This friend was very close and very dear to me. We both were aware of our political differences and had engaged in disagreements before; they sometimes got heated, of course, and they were nearly always left unresolved.  I’m sure each of us harbored some secret thoughts after these exchanges that the other had quit because the argument was unwinnable from their perspective.  I confess that I had these thoughts.

The reason I had these thoughts is what bubbled up in this last exchange with my friend.  We were engaged in a game of Trivia at a local bar, and the answer to a particular question regarding an Obama-era Attorney General was “Eric Holder.”  When I said this was the answer, my friend remarked that Eric Holder was a “piece of shit.”  This bothered me, of course, so I asked what made Holder a piece of shit.  His immediate and sharp response was that everyone in the Obama administration was a piece of shit. 

I didn’t expect this level of vitriol. I knew my friend despised the Obama administration, but this was kind of surprising. What made it a bit less surprising, or should have made it less surprising, was that my friend has recently been going through some difficult changes in his life.

Since it surprised me to hear this, I continued to push the issue, which brings me to the reason alluded to above whereby these thoughts bubbled up. I have noticed in many, many exchanges with folks with whom I’m in disagreement, that they quickly reach a point where their ability to support their side or opinion falls apart. It happens time and time again; I have been unfriended by a few conservative friends over disagreements on politics and also on religion, and in every case the discussion ended when I kept pressing an issue or asking a question that they could not answer, but which they would attempt to rebut by effectively changing the subject or making an irrelevant point, or by making an assertion unsupported by facts easily at-hand.  I have even pointed this observation out to a number of people directly, but it just seems to enhance their frustration. I don’t understand this at all – when I’m incorrect or missing a fact I want to be set straight.  I really, really don’t like to be wrong, which is one reason why I look into things maybe more deeply than a lot of folks.

Perhaps one difference between me and them is not that they also don’t want to be wrong, but rather that they are afraid to be proven wrong, or that they cannot admit when they’re wrong due to internal psychological mechanisms.  I freely admit when I’m wrong – I work in a very technical field, which can be quite humbling on this score. People who cannot admit a mistake, and course-correct afterwards, are decidedly unsuccessful where technology is involved. I’m wrong on a lot of days, sometimes more than once in a day.

Since the person I’m talking about here was a very dear friend, and since I’ve reached the point in my life where I think it’s far more important to seek truth than to avoid bruising egos, I kept up the discussion.  I am simply tired of having lopsided discussions with people who refuse to address a point directly, or even acknowledge a point to begin with. 

I told this person during our conversation that I loathed hyper-conservative media (including of course fox news, rush limbaugh, sean hannity, glenn beck, and the like) for a number of reasons, but the biggest reason is that they bombard people with a constant wave of ultra-right-wing talking points which warps their thinking, or inhibits their ability to see any side other than the one they’re hearing; in fact, it prevents them from having even the most mildly open curiosity about what the other side thinks.  This is, I feel, the case with my good friend, who is otherwise a very compassionate, generous, unselfish, and kind individual (qualities which drew me to him very powerfully). As far as I can tell, for the entirety of the previous administration he immersed himself in conservative “news” media and talk shows – such a diet can produce only one mindset. And that mindset is so very closed in upon itself it is incapable of even allowing that the other side may have a valid point. It is rigidly ideological and breeds a loathing of anything tarred with the label “liberal.” Those outlets are so toxic, they cause long-time consumers of their product to have completely visceral reactions to anything coming from, or purported to be coming from, the left.  Thus, his comment about literally everyone in the Obama administration being a “piece of shit.”  These outlets serve to further inoculate their consumers against opposing ideas by demeaning deep thought – they promulgate anti-intellectualism by sewing suspicion of those who use sophisticated language or “big words,” and denigrate institutions of higher learning as "liberal-elitist."  The parallels between what used to be called brain-washing and the tactics of modern conservative media are unsettling to me.

In a subsequent text message, in response to him telling me I had been belligerent and offensive, I told him that he had made an offensive and stupid statement that he couldn’t back up and to which I responded. I’m not sure if it meant anything substantive to him, or if it just served to isolate him further from me, but I was being sincere, frank, and completely honest when I said that.

In several blog posts here, I have written about disagreement and resolution, what it means to disagree and how to resolve differences. My friend claims to have read my blog in its entirety but I guess that my words around those subjects, into which I put a lot of consideration, meant little. What I have always tried to do is boil down our differences to tangible, concrete positions that we can discuss and maybe come to agreement on at some basic level.  I have always tried to do this. When I feel someone is telling me their stance, which I see as being comprised of a number of presuppositions, I will ask probative questions to try and establish what dependencies lie behind that stance. This is how to get at the root of differences of any kind, political or otherwise.  The parties must keep peeling back layers of disagreement until they arrive at some basic level of agreement – at some point I feel that we all as humans share basic elements, parts of our psyche and ways of approaching problems that are common due to the biology of our brains and the cultural similarities that drive and sustain all societies. At some level we have to be able to agree on something, in other words, no matter where we start or how far apart our differences begin.

What opened up this particular conversation was his belligerent and rude comment about someone I thought highly of – this set the tone for the rest of the conversation, so I responded in kind. Granted, I had enjoyed a couple of drinks before all of this happened, so I was likely a bit loose, but my recollection is clear. I countered, probed, and inquired, and became frustrated myself when my friend had a loss for words, which I understood to mean that he couldn’t back his position. I kept asking questions and making points, in an effort to drive home the major point that one shouldn’t make statements that one cannot support, especially when those statements are belligerent, crude, and offensive to one’s good friend. I admit here I was spirited and also a bit angry myself, out of the frustration borne from a hundred similar conversations with conservatives who simply make an outrageous statement and then refuse to even attempt a defense of it. It’s almost as if some feel they have the right to any opinion without the corresponding responsibility to ensure it’s at least minimally defensible, especially when that opinion impacts one’s interactions with society at large (e.g. voting habits or the reputation of an individual or group). I would argue that the more outrageous the statement, the more accusatory or defamatory it is, the greater the need for supporting evidence or reason. This is just basic decency and logic.

Now, he may feel that he doesn’t have to justify his position, at least not to me. He in fact said so, stating that he could, of course, come up with a list that I could then pick apart and grade like a school paper. He may be right, but he should at least be able to justify it to himself, and I’m pretty sure his lack of ability to make even a single cogent or indisputable point in defense of his statement is more a reflection of the lack of evidence than it is a reflection of his reticence to present such evidence to me. My response to this should have been: “Why not produce such a list?” If it will stand on its own, what’s to lose? If I’m really important to you as a friend, and if you respect me even a little, and if this is important enough to you to make callous blanket statements, why not give me the details behind your opinion?  I say with all honesty that I would listen to these and consider them. I would also examine and probe them, not out of some sense of conceit or condescension as was implied, but out of a genuine need and desire for truth. If the evidence were there, and were also supported by other evidence and reason, then I would change my position. That’s exactly how I arrived at my current political and religious outlooks, and is why I take these matters so seriously. I am willing to follow the evidence, but only if I am allowed to see it.

My follow up, sent the next day, bemoaned the inability of two supposedly close friends to even discuss their differences, no matter how far apart those differences may be and no matter how spirited the discussion might become, without resulting in a hard-stop to our relationship. My friend has since said publicly that he feels as if he were pushed until he broke inside, clearly by me. I regret that it came to this as we had a wonderful, fulfilling, and substantial friendship; I’m deeply sorry that I hurt his feelings this badly, I hate to have added to his difficulties or made him sad in any way. But I cannot honestly say that I regret engaging in this conversation, and I disagree that I pushed him until he was broken. I think that there was something inside him broken already which merely came to the forefront, and that is his ability to step outside the ultra-conservative mindset and consider even the mere possibility that there may have been some good things to come out of the previous administration, or at the very least that every single person in that administration was not a “piece of shit.”  I don’t think in the end I was really asking for that much, especially when we were such close friends.

My friend, if you’ve made it to here, this last part is again for you:  I’m genuinely sorry that I upset you and that you felt cornered by me, especially when you’re going through so much right now. I never intended to be unkind.  All I can say is, please try to see my side of it as well and don’t judge me too harshly.  I respect your intellect and compassion too much to pull punches or walk on eggshells. What we share should be stronger than this disagreement, but it also means that I will always be completely honest and open with you whether it is what you want to hear or not – I would not be much of a friend if I did anything less. If we never speak again, please take care of yourself; you should know that I only wish you the best of everything.