Last week I posted about the difficulties due to the culture wars that people are increasingly experiencing in Mormon congregations (and society at large, but you know, Mormon blog, yada yada). Many of us have really enjoyed a break from this partisan divide during the pandemic when Church-going was not a thing. It’s a little hard to want to go back into those swamp-infested waters. As mentioned in last week’s post, Pres. Oaks implored / briefly mentioned at the end of an-otherwise semi-partisan talk to leave our politics at the door, vote our conscience, and allow others to do the same, rising above partisan disagreements to vote on issues we feel are important based on the information we have.
I have thought about this a lot during the Trump years as the partisan divide has grown, and due to the rise of social media over the last decade, I’ve been occasionally surprised by the views of some of the people I’ve known my whole life. We tend to think that we are all more or less aligned, or depending on the person we assume we hold no common views, and people can sometimes surprise you.
I have also observed another phenomenon, which is that when you have a strong partisan disagreement, there is often a strengthening in the relationship rather than a severing of ties, at least when the relationship is an older one that was never based on politics, or when the people involved just make it happen. It’s hard to suss out just why this is, so I thought I’d walk through a few case studies with names and details changed to protect the guilty (my rhetorical opponents in this case).
First Case Study
A previous ward friend posted a very polemic anti-abortion screed on Facebook that contained a lot of misinformation, hyperbole, and maligning of those holding different views. This person’s abortion views were also much harsher than the Church’s actual views, and I know that this person is very actively involved in the Church. She has also been a youth leader over my child, someone whose efforts and extra care I had really appreciated, although my child was not a fan. This person had also made some very strong anti-gay remarks, equating homosexuality with pedophilia, in a previous social media post, and we had gotten into a prolonged public scrape over that. I can see why her views would result in my kids’ cancelling of her. One of the benefits of this person’s public views is that it becomes extremely easy to see where ward members stand. There were 3 or so ward friends who were making comments like mine and liking each others’ and my remarks. There were 3 or so who were agreeing with her and liking her remarks. It was pretty clear who was where on the political spectrum. All of our friendships were based on things unrelated to politics, although given my child’s feelings and our prior disagreements, I had distanced myself a little bit from this person.
Outcome: I would characterize this relationship as largely unchanged. Nobody got unfriended over it, but we seldom if at all see each other or interact at this point. I kind of knew already that this person’s views were nothing like mine. I have common friends with this person, and we share memories, many of them good, but we aren’t in the same ward anymore. Would I offer help if this person were in need? Likely yes, and I would expect them to act likewise.
Second Case Study
This next person is someone I grew up with, although we weren’t close friends. I believe he was in my first grade class, and many other classes through high school. We knew each other slightly better when we were both assigned to the same court-mandated rehab class (thank you, Nancy Reagan), although even then we weren’t so much close friends as equally emotional and contrarian, enjoying vociferous arguments with the judge over the legalization of drugs. (TBH, this particular judge was a maverick who mostly agreed with us). We were in this class with 18 of our friends, so while we didn’t spend much time together, and we graduated high school soon thereafter, we briefly bonded by being on the same political side, mostly because we were snot-nosed anti-authoritarian punks that this judge found somehow charming. Imagine my surprise when this childhood friend came out on Facebook with an anti-abortion screed on par with my first case study! As I thought about it, though, I remembered that he was raised Catholic, and I thought maybe that was informing his views. I politely but firmly countered his views, allowed for his religious views to differ from mine, and linked to an article that framed the pro-choice argument from a conservative perspective. I was immediately shouted down as a baby murderer who had been duped into evil by the Marxist left, and apparently he claimed he wasn’t Catholic (he totally was in high school, just saying, but seriously, after 30 years, who knows what religions people are claiming–they are all very different now). So that was a super nasty interaction with someone I have literally not seen or thought about in three decades, and live over two thousand miles away from to boot.
Outcome: As in the first case, a few of my other high school friends were reliably on my side, liking my posts, posting their own things, etc. Most of the ones who sided with the anti-abortion guy were people I don’t know, so non-mutual friends. Here’s the weird twist. After this altercation, he now goes out of his way to like my posts (which are not political anyway–to me, Facebook is like a reunion, for family, friends, and travel pics; Twitter is for politics). So either he thinks he won and he’s smoothing things over, or he wants to show that even though he got a little heated, it’s all good, we’re still friends, whatever. Not really sure. There is approximately zero percent chance I will ever see this person again in real life. I don’t even think he attended any of the high school reunions I went to.
Third Case Study
A Church friend I grew up with, another person I haven’t seen since high school, dared his non-Trump friends on Facebook to explain their support of Biden without reference to Trump. The gist of what he was saying is that people weren’t voting for Biden / Harris, just against Trump. Which, yes, it’s totally true in many cases because Trump was such an outlier, but many who voted for Trump likewise did it as a vote against the other party and/or the political machine, the status quo, the “deep state” if you will , so I thought it was kind of a dumb point, certainly not the coup de grace he thought it was. But I did answer his question with the things that I liked about Biden / Harris, and he came back on and said I was the only person who had actually taken the time to answer his question without resorting to partisan fighting, so thanks. He also said he thought I was wrong, but hey, that’s what I thought he’d say.
We were in the same small ward growing up (not the same high school, though), and as such we were a close-knit bunch. He’s a year behind me in school, and honestly, among our friend group he was often the one who was teased and/or bullied, but in a way that I’m going to call “affectionate” even if it was pretty over the top (not by me–I was a bystander! )
Outcome: Basically no change. We are still more or less social media friends. It maybe changed the tone of his Facebook post a little bit. As former ward friends from our youth, I would always be up for a get together or to host any of them as house guests. It’s just too long and too deep a connection to do otherwise. I have met up with two of his siblings over the years, and their views are different from his.
What I think is interesting in these cases is that the relationships pre-date the disagreement and are on a non-political basis, and as such they have enough meat on their bones to withstand what may come. These are also not high demand relationships, and they also have no impact to my daily life. These are all probably factors that allow the status quo to prevail.
The recent discussion on culture wars reminded me of another podcast discussion I was listening to in which Ezra Klein talked about how we disagree with people whose views differ, particularly in an environment of “cancel culture” in social media. Basically, if these people were strangers, I would probably dismiss them, block them, cancel them. You never persuade anyone by cancelling them, but it’s also not a big loss–I am unlikely to see these people again.
The Ezra Klein discussion concluded that you have to approach people differently based on various factors:
- Insiders of your group (people who mostly agree with you) vs. outsiders (those who oppose your viewpoint)
- Powerful or influential people or companies vs. one-off individuals
- People you have to deal with vs. people you don’t
For that first group, consider for example how you would approach someone who claims to be an LGBT ally, but then uses a term like “same-sex attraction” or questions trans rights or the lived experience of LGBT people, for example. Your approach with that person should have a higher standard than your approach if someone who does not claim to be an ally to the LGBT community says or does those things, at least if you hope to be persuasive. Otherwise literally the entire opposite view and a lot of people with overlapping views are going to be cancelled.
For the next set of factors, consider the difference between a powerful company that is found to have sexist or racist hiring practices or public views vs. an individual on Twitter who says something that is questionable in terms of race or sex. The larger company being targeted or “cancelled” is probably more impactful and justified than taking that same approach with an individual, who may have a harder time weathering the storm of public outcry and criticism.
The last set of factors is the most difficult for the case study problem. I don’t have to deal with any of those people again if I don’t want to. But I didn’t “cancel” them, block them, or unfriend them (I’ve only blocked or unfriended people for creepiness, not terrible political views), and I still hold them in some esteem on non-political topics. I wish them well. I hope they have happy lives.
I can employ people in my business whose political views are disagreeable because we aren’t doing political work. Likewise with customers. So long as we keep those things out of the fray and nobody behaves too extremely, we should be fine.
A worry I have with this last set of factors is the people at Church, the ones I don’t know well yet (and maybe don’t know if I want to know them). We have no existing relationship. If we don’t develop a relationship of good will based on other factors (e.g. real friendship, serving each other, etc.) and if they aren’t influential in my ward (e.g. teaching roles or ward leadership), I can literally just avoid them. If they are influential, that changes the calculus. If I can’t avoid them for personal reasons, that also changes the calculus.
- How do you feel about this way of evaluating relationships with those you disagree with politically?
- Do you have similar case studies?
- Do you find that relationship sometimes become “closer” after a disagreement? Or do they become more distant? Why do you think the outcome was what it was?
 I won’t.
 A lot of my teenage stories culminate in fireworks, specifically Roman candles, being shot directly at people.