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Liz Ryan Headshot

This Election Season, Can't We Be Friends and Disagree? No

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My husband makes very little use of Facebook, but then he's always been a few steps behind the curve with social media and anything remotely technology-related. When I wrote a book about LinkedIn a few years ago, I used my husband as a guinea pig. He took the stack of pages that made up my manuscript and started working on his LinkedIn profile; an hour later, I got a LinkedIn connection invitation from "Chicago Mike." Oops! I'd forgotten to mention in the first draft that LinkedIn uses real names, not 1992-style AOL handles. Live and learn.

Anyway, since my darling is a Facebook dabbler, he was surprised to see how much I post there, and how often I comment on other people's posts. "Honey, you can't win a debate on the Internet," he says, and I know it's true -- but is the point of an online back-and-forth (or one that happens in real life, for that matter) to win? There's no score-keeping. I sometimes fall into those vortices just to work out an idea in my own mind. Right now, a lot of my Facebook friends are posting things like "It's a tense election season, but we can still be friends." These posts make me wonder -- can we, after all?

I'm not sorry to see the posts and rants from friends and workmates of mine who feel differently than I do about politics. I'm happy to see them, because it fills in what would otherwise be a pretty big gap in my understanding of a person I've met through business or in some other way. It's jarring for me to get on Facebook and see a fairly close acquaintance's post promoting something horrible (denying LGBT people the right to marry, e.g.) but at least it clarifies things. Will it change our business relationship, for me to see that post? Probably not. Will it keep our friendship from blossoming? Most definitely.

My husband's family is heavily fundamentalist Christian, but (apart from one second cousin quickly unfriended) mostly balanced and heavier on love than hate. I don't have to be the same religion my friends are, of course. I don't have to agree with them on the fine points of a troop drawdown in Afghanistan or exactly how to provide health coverage for every American. I'm not a policy person, and most of my friends aren't, either. Still, policies spring from ideals and values. As nice as it would be to keep politics out of the realm of friendship, can we ethically say "I couldn't care less what my friends believe -- I just care about them as friends?"

I'm not Christian, but I'd defend my Christian friends' and family members' right to practice their religion if it were in question. So how can I be friends with people who want to deny rights to my gay friends, or deny the right to choose to me and other women? I don't care how funny or articulate you are or how much we laugh together shopping for jewelry. If you believe in hate, there goes the friendship. How hypocritical would I have to be to say "Have your beliefs, whatever they are -- I just like you for your repartee and your cooking?"

In the Civil Rights days, there were lots of people in lots of places who didn't think it polite to talk about politics. How many equality-minded people back then, in the South and all over the country, stayed friends with bigots so as not to upset the social applecart? I'm all for harmony and peace, but when your so-called friends stand for hate, aren't you part of the problem yourself when you keep up social ties with them?

People say, "You'll never change their minds," and that's perfectly fine. I don't have to change anyone's mind, but isn't my friendship a very significant form of support for a hater's views? I know, I know, Mary Matalin and James Carville pulled it off, but I have to believe that fundamentally they shared some bedrock values despite their party loyalties. That is, I'm pretty sure Mary Matalin is not a racist and doesn't want women to go to prison for getting abortions. When you run into one of those bright lines in the sand -- as I did when a Facebook friend commented on one of my posts to say that God will deal with homosexuals -- you get to/have to choose whether to ignore it or cut the friendship cord. I almost always snip the rosebush at that point, if only for the sake of my blood pressure. There is enough hate all around us -- I don't want to see it on my Facebook page, thank you.

One of my teenage sons says, "I agree with all your views, Mom, and so do all my friends, but you don't need to share all that lefty stuff on Facebook." I'm sympathetic. I just about died when my own parents made any appearance in my social life as a kid, and the high-schoolers around me have all friended me on Facebook too (I wouldn't dare friend them!) so they get to see the lefty shares my son complains about. I know I'm not changing opinions. That's fine. I don't have the energy to do that. I know my posts and shares preach to the choir. That's fine with me -- sometimes those choir members want to rejoice in the sharing of ideas we collectively hold dear. (Did I say collective? Sorry if that sounded socialist.)

Anyway, as I told my teenaged son, those posts and comments and silly memes are part of who I am. That's the mom you got, and you're stuck with her now. All moms are embarrassing, kid -- being embarrassed by your parents is part of your maturation process. I hope, years from now, the kid (a man by then) will see something wonderful beneath the embarrassment I'm causing him now. Maybe he'll say, "My mom was one of those too-old-for-Facebook dorky middle-aged women who are always posting things about love and vaginas and horses running free, but she cared about the right stuff."

I don't want to be friends with haters. I don't want to spend my emotional energy on people who use THEIR energy to keep other people down. I think that beliefs and values -- reflected, this year in particular, in political convictions - are more important than a quick wit or a killer gazpacho or a condo in Aspen that's free twice a year. Those folks have one another (the rest of the crowd that believes what they do) to keep them company -- they don't need me. This election is not just about policies and methods. It's also about trust versus fear -- trusting women to make their own reproductive choices, trust in LGBT people to be amazing married couples and parents when they want to be, trust that straight people will survive gay marriage and trust that children will get stronger from the diversity they'll see around them. It's about trust that citizens of every economic group and every demographic will benefit and that our communities will get richer when every American has excellent health care.

They say our friends have more influence on us than almost any other external force. Looked at from that perspective, can we really say, "Oh, politics are boring -- let's not talk about that stuff, and just stay friends?" when choices between fear and trust and love and hate are so close to the surface in this election, and the outcome of our decision so vital?