We all know them. Sometimes they’re people who quote Thatcher on Facebook and love the glorious ‘free market’ with all the successes they’ve booked because of it (and fuck the rest of society). Other times they’re the sexist and/or racist joke types. They’re the people who think it’s about time ‘poor’ people started having fewer children – but God forbid these people get the right to safe abortion! They’re often the people who incisively regurgitate information obtained from right-wing media all over your Facebook feed until you decide to silence them from your newsfeed altogether. They seem to have never quite understood to the concept of solidarity. They’re the ones who think of world-traveling and having multicultural contacts as an ‘asset’ yet cringe at the sight of working class immigrants in their cities. They’re the self-congratulatory hegemonic middle classes who are quite alienated from political issues, but boy do they love to bring them up! And now you have to deal with it.
The thing about interacting with political and/or economic conservatives is that, well… We all probably know (and love) a lot of them. I can’t speak for everyone but if my social network is any parameter, it is unavoidable. They’re our uncles, cousins and old friends. They’re the people we know well enough to look past their shitty ideas about the world. They are, in sum, the people with whom we exercise our deepest tolerance.
But how exactly do we avoid talking politics? Especially when they know – because this aforementioned affection is a two way street and they know you well enough to have caught on to the fact that you’re a ‘leftist hippie’ (their words, not yours of course) – you care about these topics. And what’s more: they are absolutely sure that your opinion differs from theirs. And that you’ve probably spent more time thinking about whatever social issue they are interested in debating than they have. So they provoke you. Harmlessly, I choose to believe. But the truth is that they want to hear you say how much you think they are being unreasonable, in order to engage you in that which you avoid at all costs: arguing with someone you love who has a very strong opinion about something you feel they don’t know enough about.
The trickiest part in my opinion is playing this game of avoidance without seeming like a snob. This is something I struggle with a little. As a social scientist, even though I am leftist or Neo-Marxist or whatever the fuck you want to call it, I try to remain somewhat unbiased in my work. I say somewhat because no one studies social justice, exclusion, poverty, immigration and feminism without some orientation about morality. So what used to happen a few years ago is that I would arm myself with empirical evidence from particular cases, combine that with whatever theory I saw fit for its educational purpose, slowly count to ten and very calmly explain why, in fact, my conservative loved one should reconsider his or her opinion. Very peacefully and rationally I would try and nuance their views. I would think to myself: we don’t even have to agree, but if I can get one zombie conservative to think contextually before blurting out whatever hate speech came to mind at that point, my job would be done. (Although I must admit that this calm rationality I speak of was only ever reserved for loved ones.)
But here’s the thing about mindless conservatism that reiterates ideas from the right-wing media: these opinions, more often than not, do not come from a place of reason. Take it from me and do not fall into this trap. See, it’s a little bit like arguing with a toddler. The only real way for them to let you get through the little speech you prepared in your head is if they’ve stopped listening. Instead, what usually happens is that they’ll become agitated and start shouting before you even finished your point. And if you do choose to continue – say, because your good intentions equate to a form of masochism – this process will repeat itself endlessly. The result is then that you accomplish nothing except lose a whole lot of emotional energy and patience. And in the process you begin to have a harder time seeing through your friend/cousin/uncle’s shitty ideas about the world.
Look, I’m not by any means saying that you shouldn’t argue with anyone who thinks differently from you. There are so many people who think differently from me who do very much come from a place of reason and it leads to (undeniably) frustrating but very fruitful and interesting discussions – whereby we both still think we’re right but our views have become more nuanced as a result. And then there are also people whose morally questionable choices we refuse to accept and will forever attempt to change because we assume they are just having a lapse of judgment – say, those very very close to us.
Yet in my experience, when it comes to people we don’t need to deal with that often who we genuinely like in spite of their opinions, there is very little to be gained from this engagement. Looking past a sexist joke from an old friend is one thing, having confirmation of his utter irrationality and inflexibility can be very damaging for your relationship.
So although I do not have a secret formula as to how to win this game of avoidance, one of the best things I ever did was to start playing it. I used to drive myself insane and experience seriously hardcore heart palpitations when talking to my conservative loved ones about certain issues. And for what exactly?
We all weed out people from our lives for various reasons from time to time. But seeing as we have kept these specific people in our lives thus far, in spite of what we see as their questionable moral choices, why not then keep the relationship at that shallow level where it works?
Yes, I do realize this might make me sound somewhat cowardly. But I am passing on this piece of advice because I can tell you from experience that I have made myself infinitely happier by learning to pick my battles and most importantly: my opponents.