I recently said goodbye to someone I had considered a friend since we were children.
This endpoint of a friendship had been building for a couple of months as I found myself less and less able to stomach some of the opinions that were being offered, and especially the derisive tone in which they were expressed. Most recently, I was accused of seeking only acolytes. My behavior in dropping him on Facebook was described as “totally irrational” and not “age-appropriate” – although those statements were also couched in a briefly public terminology of care and concern for my mental health. Oh, gee, thanks.
You see, I regularly find myself in some agreement with political arguments from the center on into the left; the majority of highly educated people do, and not without good reasons – all having to do with the benefits of a strong training in thinking, reasoning, history, and interpretation. Unfortunately, this man – along with many others – had developed a belief that people on the left (“Liberals”) are inflexible and impractical
and somehow unethical and uninformed (I was corrected on this last phrase – only “inflexible and impractical” is the belief. Consider me set straight.). He, of course, had developed a fondness for the right-wing – even to some of its extremes, such as the denial of human-based effects on climate change. Ironically, his view of liberals …
Whether his views are a result of the saturation of the cultural context by propaganda, or because there wasn’t enough of a will in him toward doing an ethical or political or historical analysis, or whether it was really all just a further attempt at needling me doesn’t really matter in the end.
As the citizens of our country become more polarized, many of them do less thinking through of the issues that really confront us all. The materials they are often given to build their judgments are not only shoddy, but also Orwellian in their misdirection. There are figures out there that rival Reagan in their teflon characteristics. Just keep repeating the talking points. Don’t answer questions. No matter what is proven, just keep repeating. No rinse. Just repeat.
This situation is not only frustrating to watch, but after this last decade of watching it, I have made some judgments of my own.
As I said in a previous post, everyone has a right to express their opinion, but not all arguments are of equal validity or value. A proto-Nazi had the ability in pre-war Germany to express an opinion, no matter how hateful or unfair it might be – but that doesn’t mean such a person escapes the truth – and judgment – that millions of people were unfairly imprisoned, tortured and killed because of the successful spread of those unfounded beliefs during a time of economic high stress. I used to be stunned and bewildered that such a thing could ever have happened, and I didn’t really understand the importance of never forgetting. There have been other events in the world that are as horrifying, but this one resonates so strongly to me as I reflect in sadness upon some of the policies of modern-day Israel, and of the U.S. It seems as though another wave of hate is moving across the world and it’s not specific to one or two countries. Some countries are acting on the right for freedom and fairness as some of the usual value-bearers are forgetting them. Yes, “it” can happen here, and I deeply pray that’s not the future that is being chosen as correct by the American people themselves. Can I be neutral? Can you?
Another example: A creationist can express an opinion against natural selection, but it’s not borne out by scientific evidence and witness (and therefore one wonders if it could really be in alignment with God, supposing there is one in the way that people seem to imagine). And again: The Westboro Baptist group can express their beliefs – no matter how horrible – near the funerals of our soldiers, but that doesn’t mean they are authentic Christians (supposing that such a thing exists). Last: Groups with money to lose or gain can pay to influence targeted populations, often with astounding success (but you must have to be cold, cold, cold to be able to do it if you know that you’re misleading or outright lying). Do you grok me on this?
I have some conservative friends with whom I can enjoy a good debate, because they are often aware of and follow the ground rules. I say “conservative” because I would make a distinction between them and the no-longer fringe (in the sense of numbers) right wing. While I obviously think people who are that far to the right are very mistaken and also very often intentionally misled, the biggest frustration for me is that you can no more have a real discussion with them than you can with a newly-converted fanatic.
My positions tend to adapt to better information and to the influx of different points of view, but they are informed by assessments and re-assessments that have built up over time as I follow a number of themes across the political landscape. Therefore, they have become fairly well-stabilized.
I saw the language of liberation warped out into a false characterization of repressive political correctness that not only effectively deconstructed much of what had been gained in freedom, but became a self-fulfilling description as even academe seemed to be affected by and eventually act out the crazy cartoon version. I saw concerns about community breakdowns – teen pregnancies, the influx of meth, the migration of jobs – turn into attempts to re-take control of women, use drug laws to steal property, and overturn the assumption of innocence until proven guilty – which further morphed into the loss of habeas corpus, and the extradition of prisoners for torture. I saw a flawed country move into increasingly schizoid modes: prudes and shameless exhibitionism, closeted self-haters attacking gays, some progress toward an understanding of race as a legacy cultural construct even as the KKK and Hatriot groups increase their memberships – and their levels of violence – and Americans want to target the only ones among our number who could help turn the tide against radical forms of Islam in the world. I’ve watched as we’ve been manipulated into hating each other, and into somehow thinking that it’s American to think of other Americans as not “real” Americans – or even as “unAmerican.”
On and on – one step forward – and, how many steps back today?
My working definition of service as a teacher is to instruct, in every possible way, with enough method and discipline and content and destabilization of habit to encourage every student to learn what it really means to think critically, ethically and lovingly *for themselves.* My working definition of a good student is to pay attention to thoughts, people and events that can grant a better ability to do so.
Consider the perfect performative irony of this brilliant scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”:
BRIAN: No. No, please! Please! Please listen. I’ve got one or two things to say.
FOLLOWERS: Tell us. Tell us both of them.
BRIAN: Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!
FOLLOWERS: Yes, we’re all individuals!
BRIAN: You’re all different!
FOLLOWERS: Yes, we are all different!
DENNIS: I’m not.
Now… friends can be teachers one moment, students the next, and yet again peers. We are all teaching one another, either positively or negatively. It’s a long life, with a never-ending supply of lessons.
Unfortunately, as open as one tries to be as a teacher, a student, a peer, a friend, it sometimes happens that you reach the end of the helpful lessons with a person and instead you find yourself in danger of unravelling some of the good lessons instead.
It’s not easy to have to acknowledge that mutual and beneficial lessons have completed, and that the negative dynamic has nothing further to offer either person. I tend to overstay that line – my fault usually lies on the side of being overly-loyal to friends. It’s also far too easy – because of that – to be guilt-tripped into attempting to continue friendships that have really come to an end.
What happens when you discover that a friend is no longer a friend? Well, one can learn lessons from an adversary, too. But worthy adversaries bother arguing because there there is an honest – or grudging – respect that makes the argument worthwhile for both. If there is little respect, sometimes there can be a practical reason, such as the need to find a solution to a pressing problem among diverse ideas. Sure, I’ll talk sometime with George Will if an opportunity presents itself, and there are people on the right that have real issues and solutions to bring to the table (if they would).
However, when an overall stance lacks fairness toward such a diverse and interesting population as exists in the U.S.A., and the thinking has no critical method of interpretation, and the ethic is somewhat less than compassionate, and derision has replaced caring, the number of options for dialogue dwindles very quickly. What’s left? You can try to present that view of how things are, with an aim to change it or heal it. You can agree not to discuss the topics that reveal this situation in all its reality. You can offer other perspectives and “what-if” situations, or show how the issue may affect that person alone – for purely selfish reasons, if there’s nothing else. You can pretend it doesn’t matter, or argue that other aspects of the relationship might make up for it, or you may feel that it’s ethical and caring to forgive it. It’s only the last that was – finally – compelling. There are reasons to forgive some of it, with an understanding of how it has happened to be that way.
But I guess I have a lot more learning to do – because I just don’t have the spiritual discipline (even in understanding) to be able to practice that forgiveness in every interaction. I’d rather practice forgiveness on those who aren’t pretending to be my friend while getting pleasure from causing me distress.