Why I Don’t Unfriend My Pro-Trump and “All Lives Matter” Friends and Relatives

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images via Bloomberg — I did not purchase this image, but I am also not profiting from this article.

I have seen several friends this election season ask their Trump-supporting or Clinton-supporting Facebook friends to unfriend them. I’ve had others ask me why I continue to engage with right-wing or even just conservative friends. Please don’t take this post as criticism if that has been your approach, but I’d like to give some of my own reasons for keeping my relationships intact and my own lines of communication open. (I write as a straight, cis, white male currently at an elite institution. Much of what works for me will not work for those living entirely different experiences, and I don’t want to imply otherwise.)

First, when we ignore racists or anyone else we disagree with, we isolate them — and we isolate ourselves. There’s not much of a liberal perspective in a couple of my friends’ Facebook feeds right now, which means that my presence and thoughts keep liberalism from becoming an abstract boogeyman. Take a look at these WSJ graphics — is this the kind of one-sided discourse we want anyone to have?

But when we remain in each others’ feeds, we have to confront each others’ views as real, not as a fringe view that nobody actually holds. My friend can’t claim “The media makes it up, because I’ve never met any liberals!” As we saw when the debate around marriage equality shifted once people realized they knew gay people, it’s hard to demonize a real person as opposed to the idea of that person. When we know the actual individual, we can better separate them as a complex human being from their beliefs that may be constructs of time and place.

Isolating them and ourselves would also mean that the national debate, and the ensuing electoral results, would only grow more polarized. Or rather, since it’s tough to be more polarized than we are now, that polarization would harden. If isolation and polarization are even just a small part of the reason we wind up with Palins and Trumps (or Alan Graysons) rather than Kasichs and Rubios, then I don’t want to play a role in making them worse.

Second, and this might be the real reason, I rarely think of myself as engaging with the person you see me engaging with. I think of myself as engaging with YOU. I’m no more trying to persuade the vocal Trump supporter than Hillary was trying to persuade Donald. But there’s an audience — plenty of people reading the back-and-forth, sometimes clicking “like” and sometimes quietly moving on, many of whom don’t follow politics closely. I don’t want comments I perceive as misleading or even racist to go unanswered for those readers. Sometimes I fail and lose sight of that, then I get too emotional or hot under the collar, and that’s not a good look. But I’m trying.

Note also that some of those in the quiet audience might be queer people or people of color — I don’t want them to see bigotry go unanswered. I can’t be the reason they feel abandoned or alone. It’s up to me to stand with them, and silence and isolation are no way to do that. (Relatedly, we hear often from black voices that it can’t be up to them to explain racism to white people, or from queer voices tired of asserting themselves in the face of prejudice. They justifiably grow tired of having to have that same conversation over and over again. What kind of ally would I be if I didn’t pick up that mantle?)

Third, I don’t want to give a Trump-supporting friend the ammunition to validate themselves by saying, “Aha! He ignores/unfriends me! Truth hurts, liberals can’t take being called out! Keep it up, friends!” They may find other ways to say such things, but at least it won’t be thanks to me.

Fourth, these are real people. I went to high school with many of them. You can look at my comment sections and roll your eyes at the politics of one of my childhood friends who just got laid off, and I can look at yours and mumble about the rants of your favorite cousin who just had a secret miscarriage “who the heck is that woman, she’s nuts,” but the flesh and blood truth gets a whole lot realer when it moves away from the computer screen. I’ve got to remember the actual human connections, and continue to respect everybody as one of God’s children. Let’s remember, Jesus engaged the Pharisees. I’m almost certainly more Pharisee than I am Jesus, but either way, I don’t get to walk away.

Fifth, as hinted in the first reason, this isn’t a one-way street. I have something to learn from everyone I meet. Now obviously some people are level-headed and reasonable and some aren’t; the real difference is in style and tactics, not politics. But even when someone is being crude, insulting, racist, or emotional, I can still learn from them. Their lived experience is different than mine, and it is just as valid. They are lashing out in unhealthy, unconstructive, and sometimes even immoral ways, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story underneath it all that would benefit me to hear.

There are many white people facing troubling economic hardships, people who feel that their troubles are ignored while others’ get showered with attention. Poverty and race overlap, but if we only pay attention to the overlap, we really are ignoring a lot of legitimate suffering, and we are going to alienate those people. That doesn’t justify anyone’s individual racist backlash, so the answer isn’t to abandon calling out and addressing systemic racism — but we do need to expand our approach to poverty and inclusion. We need to address those whose suffering is because of racism, but also those whose economic or emotional suffering comes from other sources. It’s the kind of deep insecurity that underlies racism across the rust belt and won’t go away if we just call people out unconstructively. It gets us nowhere to say, “Go away you racist, you clearly don’t understand the systematic and historical complexities at play here.” We need to listen to their stories, too. Thus, I can learn from anyone, and don’t want to arrogantly isolate myself from them.

Finally, it’s rare, but every now and then, these conversations do make a difference. I saw one friend change her view about LGBT rights and marriage equality thanks to a Facebook conversation once. I have to imagine that it’s even more true for the audience than for those directly engaged. Social media is tricky because so much communication is nonverbal (between body language and tone of voice, up to 93%!), and someone who communicates well verbally might not be good at writing. But though it’s tricky, it’s still the modern town square, and change does happen in the town square. We can’t cease our conversations just because they moved online. It is so important to talk to our family and friends, especially when the stakes are as high as they are during this election season, and during the Black Lives Matter conversations.

Those are just my thoughts. To be clear, all of this covers WHY I keep talking to tea party and pro-Trump friends, not HOW I talk to them. I have entirely different thoughts on the latter question, and certainly don’t always live up to my own goals and expectations. Besides, let’s remember that no single block of people is monolithic. And discovering the diversity within groups other than my own is as important as discovering that those groups exist — one more reason to keep talking.

(Addendum: A person suffering attacks on their very identity or any other form of abuse should not have to endure that. This article is discussing my role in conversations where my own identity is not the topic of the conversation. To use a crude analogy, I am more like a frat bro who sees a bad situation developing in his frat house and has the ability to intervene safely. If you identify more with the object of the bro’s abuse, I do not mean to put this article on you at all.)