A few major media outlets published pieces around the holidays last year about family relationships hurt by the election campaign. I’d been frustrated by conversations with family members, and it bothered me that I had to avoid talking to some of the people closest to me about a topic that felt more important than any other at that time. Some of my family relationships felt constrained, and a little superficial, but they were not damaged. I didn’t believe politics had that kind of power. On Thanksgiving Day, I posted this:
Bob, my brother-in-law, while passionately anti-olive, did not vote for Trump and does not support the border wall. Bob was bringing levity into a sensitive climate like only he can. More than anything else, he was messing with me, and everyone, including me, found it funny.
In the past year, I’ve lost a few acquaintances over politics. A former colleague unfriended me with a touch of dramatic flair when I wrote a post in support of Black Lives Matter. At the height of the Clinton email controversy, a cousin blocked me -an act I thought we reserved for maniacs trying to break into our homes to set our pet hamsters on fire. I’m certain I’ve been unfollowed by a number of people, and I’ve had others tell me they just scroll past most of my posts. And that’s okay. I don’t unfollow people I disagree with, but I understand why people do, and I respect that decision. I also understand the frustrated responses of people who sign on to social media sites to see photos of their friends’ cruises and cute animal videos and find their feeds flooded with political rhetoric.
More recently, though, the very real threat that political division poses to relationships has hit me hard. Last Thursday afternoon, I received this text from someone close to me:
The post in question was the essay by Ta Nehisi Coates that appeared in The Atlantic that same day. I hadn’t commented on it except to say, “Well worth reading.” I did find it well worth reading. His argument is compelling, if painful to read. Not as painful, though, as the text, which knocked the wind out of me.
Of course I do not dislike our country. I am patriotic to a fault. That’s why I am losing sleep over the current state of our nation. I also did not see the essay as “hateful.” I saw it as exposing and countering hate.
But none of that matters. Not the merits or the flaws of the essay or my rationale for sharing it. Our conversation (if one could call it that) ended this way:
All that matters to me now is that this post (and, I assume, other posts conveying similar sentiments) seem to have ended a relationship that, while difficult, has always been deeply important to me.
Before about two years ago, I used Facebook exclusively as a forum for self-deprecating humor and to share cute pictures of my niece and nephew. I cringed at posts condemning public schools as dens of iniquity, but I never engaged with those doing the posting. It didn’t seem worth the anguish. But then I changed contexts, and I recognized the urgency that people around me felt to challenge unfair policies, to point out implicit racism and other biases in dominant responses to current events, and to push for social justice. They used social media for political purposes because their lives were political. They had to be. These people were fighting for their communities, for their students, for our education system, for our society. They lived these causes because they had experienced in real and concrete and sometimes tragic ways the effects of injustice.
And suddenly being silent felt arrogant. It felt like a function of privilege to choose to keep my social media page benign, funny, trivial. Not everyone has that choice. At the same time, I realized I had a network that many of them didn’t have: a predominantly white, predominantly conservative, predominantly evangelical community. People who generally had not been exposed to the ideas my colleagues were sharing and the questions they were raising, just as I had not been. I knew I had people in my network who would want to hear these perspectives and who would be challenged and enriched by them, just as I had been. I also knew many people would hate them, and that worried me. I could have stayed silent, but to stay silent was to be dismissive of a struggle of which I’d been largely unaware but from which my friends and colleagues, and even my students, were battered and exhausted. I felt ill-equipped to join them, but I knew that in this very small way, I could help. And it felt like the right thing to do. It also felt like an important part of my own learning experience. I had to engage in order to understand.
Now, this week, I’ve taken my first real blow. It’s nothing like the blows others have taken. It’s laughable compared to the blows others have taken -those whose passions and gifts and positions have placed them on the front lines. But it hurts, and I find myself sort of stuck, as I imagine others have before me, to an exponentially greater degree.
I can’t change my political views. They have changed before, and they may change again, but right now they are consistent with my understanding of the world. They have, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, put me at odds with some important aspects of my upbringing, and I’m working to resolve those tensions, but overall I feel less tension among my politics, my faith, and my work than I did five years ago. Becoming conservative again for the sake of relationships is not an option, even though last Thursday I wished it were.
I could revert back to a social media page full of stories about out-of-control laundry and fun pictures, but that too feels unreasonable now. As angry as I have been at the evangelical community, it is my community. Its leaders are my leaders and its members are my friends and family. I am one of them, and I am in this with them, even if I stand in disagreement with the majority on major issues. And this country is my country. I still cry when I stand to salute the flag during the National Anthem, even as I stand firmly and proudly alongside those who exercise their right to remain seated. I am compelled to fight for the Church because I am deeply connected to it, and I am compelled to fight for our country because I desperately want it to be its very best -with liberty and justice for ALL. And I know that our country is not its best, nor is the Church. There is work to do. And I know my friends at the opposite end of the political spectrum agree; we just disagree on how to make it right. But we won’t make it right if we don’t talk about it.
I also know that I will likely be fine whether I enter the fray or not. I am sure of my salvation, and my rights are secure. But that is not the case for everyone, and I bear that responsibility too.
I am fumbling on social media. I share arguments that I find persuasive, and then I read counterarguments that are more persuasive. I inadvertently plagiarize people, thinking I’m presenting an original idea. I say things in hurtful ways, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes in the heat of the moment. I’m trying, but I’m making a lot of mistakes.
I cherish my relationships, even the hard ones. I know that my most challenging relationships have made me better. I hate that political strife comes at the cost of relationships. I wish it didn’t have to. But I can’t pull back, because that would come at the cost of my integrity, and that’s a price I can’t pay.
Featured Photo Credit: Dave Schumaker, Flikr. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/rockbandit