The campaign season was not eternal, after all. Yesterday we witnessed the inauguration of our president, with customary fanfare, high minded words, aerial crowd photos, and pundits holding forth on democracy and designer shoes. Suddenly it’s over. We can catch our breath and return to our usually scheduled programming. Don’t know about you, but I’m emotionally exhausted.
Time to shift focus to our intimate world, and to our friendships. How have they fared, while we were preoccupied?
If you breathe air, you have been affected by the abrasive political climate swirling around us. Life in community, this year, has meant navigating stinging mistrust, even among our friends. Disagreement has become toxic to the point that, according to an informal study by Mashable, 47% of us have unfriended people on Facebook for political reasons during this election season, not to mention those we have quietly muted or ignored.
Sharing cyberspace, if not sharing coffee, with a friend of a different political viewpoint has become difficult, as if being civil compromised one’s deep convictions. Ordinary life got sucked into a huge partisan struggle, from which it is hard to pull free. Facebook conversation has been overtaken with sarcasm, posturing, and finally, friends avoiding one another.
Breathing politically charged air, we have turned into “us” and “them”. Group identity took over everything else for a while, sometimes at significant personal cost. As we uncoil from the season’s political drama, it’s not clear if these friendships are healing. Mashable asked people to post about how this process of moving past the election is going. To date, nobody has commented. The post has been shared 10 thousand times.
Not much has been written yet about how to repair friendships wounded by politics. Psychologists are studying why we have become so partisan, so vulnerable and furious that we reject our politically misguided friends. Social scientists are exploring the possibility of encouraging more moderate views in society, and toning down the demonizing language of political action groups flooding the airwaves, that apparently does not have to be justified. But these remedies require acts of congress: changes in campaign funding and filibuster rules, for example. For the sake of our personal wellbeing, I don’t think we can wait.
In the meantime, it is left to the social media etiquette mavens, to help us heal.
Ironically, they suggest we make amends in person.
The Arizona Republic (Social Media Friends Begin Post-Election Fence Mending) suggests that we change the subject. Find your sense of humor, but don’t ignore the hurt of political jibes, they say. Huffpost (America Divided: Post-Election Nation in Need of Healing) shares the voices of small town people in Virginia, whose political opponents are also their close neighbors, who must continue to depend on one another. Townspeople still gather at the local bookstore; normal conversations are resuming, about music and family gossip. The volume has been turned down, but the hurt does not appear to be gone. There is no formula for healing.
How can we tend politically wounded friendships?
First, observe others. Is it safe to proceed? If small gestures of willingness are not reciprocated, but met with continued rhetoric, it is just not time. Go on record saying so, with regret. Awareness is good medicine.
Observe yourself. We can reduce the power of labels. Never has a political view been enough to capture our whole being. Who else are you, besides a D or an R or a whatever? Daughter, photographer, economist, vegan, hiker, soprano, contralto, beekeeper, Christian, yogi, bargain hunter, scientist? We do not ask ourselves how it is possible to be both a beekeeper and a soprano. Perhaps we can reclaim interest in meaningful common ground, without minimizing our differences. Perhaps we can defer some disagreements. Not forever, but for now. Relationships matter.
Increase our tolerance for ambiguity. We can resist the temptation to classify a person as just plain conservative, or completely radical, or totally predictable, or entirely sane. We can search for exceptions to the images we hold of one another that were painted with a broad brush, of those smug ideologues who have wounded and diminished us. Allow others to surprise us: look more closely and we may discover a conservative herbal healer, jazz playing accountant, faith-based angry liberal. If we can acknowledge that our images of our adversaries may be incomplete, we allow more breathing space for healing.
Be candid and assertive. In the heat of politics, we may have been disrespected, subjected to snark, ignored, deleted. Healing is more likely when we acknowledge feeling angry about being invisible to our friends, whose loyalty went elsewhere. In a polarized society, our friends have seemed like aliens from another political world, who were certain of their views, and intent on winning. Political principles matter. Still, we are wondering where the benevolence went. They may wonder, too.
This process of post-election healing is difficult. Some relationships have lost their mooring. But genuine friendship is rare enough to be worth the awkward, mutual search for solid ground.