We Are Not Enemies: Why Political Views Are A Poor Litmus Test

I recently attended a local event hosted by some talented artists. There was food, wine, music and great comradery. As someone who makes a living spouting endless opinions on politics and culture, I prefer not to engage in much political discussion when I’m socializing. A common complaint among my pundit peers is that while out at parties/events, when people find out what you do for a living they want to spend the whole time quizzing you about politics. My stepmother is a physician and every time she’s at a party someone asks her about some ache or pain or mysterious rash they have. Her typical response is, “You should probably ask your doctor about that”. My job as an opinion journalist is far less serious than hers. Having no witty response to shut down unwanted discussions about my profession I simply choose not to bring it up at all. With politics being such a touchy subject these days it’s better that way.

I had a great time at the party and met some fabulous people. We drank too much and laughed just enough. We talked about our mutual interests. We discussed our kids, our spouses, our homes. Here and there someone may have brought up a complaint about Trump but even though the crowd I was in was largely progressive, not many people were keen to sully their night with political talk. Everyone was there to have a good time. As far as I could see, everyone did.

Not one person knew me as a conservative political pundit. When asked what I did, I simply said “I’m a writer” and left it at that. In southern California everyone’s “in the biz” and there’s rarely a need to expound unless that person chooses to say more.

I wasn’t trying to be dishonest or sneaky. I just wanted to enjoy the company of like-minded people without our interactions being tainted by headlines and #FakeNews and partisanship.

You see, even though I pretty much knew I had political differences with the people I was meeting, the fact is we were like-minded. I had gone to an event to support the arts and unsurprisingly I found myself surrounded by others who support the arts as well. We were neighbors for that brief time, in both spirit and proximity.

There used to be a time when our politics were not the sole litmus test of our value as human beings. Before the internet age our political conversations were limited to face-to-face interactions. They took place in settings where nuance and context were native to the conversation. Typically if you were discussing politics with someone, chances are you already knew them in some way — your neighbor, co-worker, church brethren, etc. The people you were discussing ideological differences with were also the people you trusted and communed with in your daily life. You didn’t need to judge them by their position on one given issue or another because you already knew how they lived their lives. You saw their lives in totality — their service to others, their charity, their family life, their attitude as a member of the community.

We live in a time where our socializing has been turned upside down by the “convenience” of communication. For many of us, the majority of our conversations take place in the impersonal space called “online”. The delicacy of personal conversations has been replaced by the bluntness of the keyboard. We can’t read facial expressions, body language or social cues. We have no window into the day-to-day lives of the people we engage with. Having no other way to judge the character of strangers/acquaintances we are forced to fill in the gaps on our own, and we do that by substituting our own morality in place of the intimacy of personal interaction.

That leaves us with the very binary choice of “Are you good or are you bad?” , based on nothing more than an opinion posted on a social media thread — an opinion that is already distorted in tone and expression by the sense of anonymity the internet provides. It’s not a useful way to judge a human being’s worth, even if what that person is typing seems offensive. Yet, with social media taking up so much space in our lives it’s become the common way to make judgments about people.

Politics has necessarily become our litmus test because we don’t spend enough time simply being with each other anymore.

It’s understandable. If all you ever read are headlines and network news chyrons it is easy to see how one might become suspicious and gloomy. The news always seems so desperate.

The truth of the matter is that once you extricate yourself from the news cycle and interact with your community as people rather than political positions, you start to feel a whole lot better about humanity and our prospects for the future. You begin to familiarize yourself with the concept of diversity as it is truly meant to be — the mixing of different cultures, concepts and ideas. We can judge those ideas for ourselves in any given conversation. Tolerating political differences doesn’t mean accepting them, it simply means accepting that they live in a space that does not define the totality of a human being.

Online interaction does not allow for such tolerance. I often have to giggle at the obviously/intentionally flawed “WE DON’T TOLERATE INTOLERANCE!” argument. But for online interaction, it’s understandable. Of course you don’t, because it’s pretty obvious that person who disagrees with you on border control or environmental policy is a giant, rude, uncaring a-hole. Just look at what they wrote!

When you’re speaking face-to-face with someone the entire dynamic changes. Not only do most people soften their tone when unable to hide behind a computer screen, the people they’re talking to have more information with which to judge their discussion partner. Maybe you disagree on something fundamental, but at least you have the opportunity to see this person is not Literally Hitler™. In short, you see them as a person rather than an avatar.

Even better, in the course of said conversation you may discover that the other person loves the same movies you do or the same music or loves to travel to the same destinations as you.

The truth is, you interact with people who have fundamentally opposing political views to yours every day and you don’t even know it. And you shouldn’t know it. Our political thoughts are too accessible these days and as a result it has grossly distorted our intuition and ability to enjoy diverse company. It turns out that when you eliminate politics as a starting point there’s actually a whole world of pleasant, enjoyable people out there who are just waiting for someone like you to come along and add more pleasure, more knowledge, more joy to their lives.

I’m not sure why I felt so compelled to write this here. It’s not like political intolerance and division is anything new. I guess I just wanted to remind us all that there’s a way to be neighbors and treat each other kindly while still having vast political differences. That used to be common.

Politics has always been an ugly industry, since the beginning of humanity. History is clear about that. It isn’t the nature of politics that has changed. Things are not “worse”. We are.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Go out and enjoy each other. Get to know each other. Let the totality of a person’s life inform your opinion, not some shallow political theories expressed in ones and zeroes.