Best friends, family members, and spouses argue about all kinds of things: Who is the best quarterback, who should be picked on the Bachelor, whether their daughter’s boyfriend is youthfully rebellious or a total loser, which movie to watch, among many other sources of disagreement. When these disagreements involve relatively inconsequential preferences and opinions, they are harmless and sometimes entertaining. But what about when the preferences become more serious and involve fundamental values?
Can an atheist and a deeply religious person get married and live happily ever after? What about extreme liberals and conservatives? Can someone whose best friends include gay people successfully befriend others who think that homosexuality is the devil’s work? Most of us can readily cite examples in our own lives in which we have maintained friendships with people whose values diverged sharply from our own. In fact, when these dissenters are family members, we have little choice but to figure it out unless we decide to abandon our family altogether.
But the stakes in the present social and political climate are escalating. Last week, as I was watching CNN, a panelist, Mark Lamont Hill called President Donald Trump a white supremacist. This came on the heels of Jemelle Hill, a reporter on ESPN’s Sports Center, saying not only that Trump is a white supremacist, but asserting that he is surrounded by other white supremacists. And then there is the debate surrounding the protests during the National Anthem among many National Football League players. I don’t know if Trump is a white supremacist, but he seems, for whatever reason, determined to exacerbate the racial divide in America, and to usher in an era of deteriorating race relations. But people I care about disagree strongly with my social and political views, and given that these views concern people’s fundamental values and character, it is quite a different matter than if they disagreed with my food preferences, favorite sports teams, or preferred vacation sites.
So, how to handle these differences? People who try to right every wrong they perceive, or to convince others of their wisdom and rectitude, can be tiresome—the word for this is a “scold.” They also risk being seen as contemptuous, hypocritical, and argumentative. On the other hand, what about someone who never takes a stand or expresses a controversial view? That tack may help to maintain cordial social interactions, but of course, it risks making others with opposing views, or views that we find objectionable, think that everyone agrees with them. When Mark Lamont Hill called Trump a white supremacist, Ana Cabrera on CNN suggested that he was being divisive. If Hill believes that Trump is a white supremacist, and that he is a danger to minorities and to the country at large, doesn’t he have a responsibility to be divisive, if that entails expressing clearly which side of the divide he occupies? Ditto for the NFL players. Historical examples in which failing to oppose injustice led to dire consequences come easily to mind.
In our personal lives, the question we often find ourselves pondering is whether it is personally and/or socially wise or advantageous to express disapproval of others views, or to state controversial or unorthodox opinions. This question pops up early, sometimes around the dinner table with one’s parents, in an elementary school classroom, or in church. To the extent that standing up for ones beliefs is personally liberating, it presumably has psychological benefits, although I’m not aware of any definitive, longitudinal research on this topic. Conversely, being continually at loggerheads with one’s family and friends can be painful and distressing. Furthermore, if you don’t pick your battles wisely, and react to every perceived disagreement or injustice, you may be seen as “argumentative” by others. I must say that I’ve never quite understood why it was so bad to be argumentative. Socrates was nothing if not argumentative and he is one of Western Civilization’s great heroes. Of course, he was rewarded for his efforts with a lethal dose of hemlock, so there’s the rub.
During my first year of graduate school, I was sitting at the swimming pool at my apartment complex and listening to a group of white, undergraduate men making racist jokes while discussing the upcoming basketball season. Finally, I decided to ask them how they could be rooting for a team, which comprised primarily black players, while making those kinds of comments. The answer was “hey, we never said they couldn’t play basketball.” So did my social advocacy amount to anything other than making me feel better about myself? Probably not, and there is always the risk that confronting people about racial, gender, or religious bias can have the opposite effect than the one intended, causing them to dig their heels in further and become more belligerent.
When it comes to ongoing relationships, there is a deep moral issue concerning what it means to befriend or maintain associations with people whose views you find repugnant or harmful. This moral issue does not arise in disagreements over sports teams or music preferences, although some people take even these to extremes. But what if you find that a friend has a swastika hanging in his bedroom? Or tells tasteless racial and sexist jokes? Or supports institutional policies that you believe are injurious to people whose welfare you wish to protect or promote, such as those whose sex, race, gender identity, or religious affiliation causes them to be treated unfairly? At what point do we decide not to associate with this person anymore? As with most morally-tinged issues, there is no definitive answer to this question, but it is one that caring and responsible people have probably asked themselves. The decision requires a choice between two commendable but sometimes incompatible positions: to be as flexible and understanding as possible, or to stand up for your beliefs. Although there is no single right answer, it is a question that is difficult to ignore.