The political is the personal

Two recent articles talking about the difficulty of being in relationships with people where sharp political differences are involved: a gay conservative writer for the New Republic writes about being dumped by his liberal boyfriend, and a guy writes to Salon‘s Cary Tennis about how he can’t stand to be around his Republican parents. I think I also recall a NY Times piece a while back about realtionships being strained on account of the partisan tensions of the Bush era.

When my wife and I first started dating our politics were pretty far apart, but I think we’ve actually come to agree about more things as we’ve been married. I’m not sure who’s yielded more ground, though! And it took me a while to figure out that when arguing about politics with your spouse, you don’t necessarily want to go for the jugular, i.e. the way you argue can be just as important as what you’re saying. I was kind of clueless about this because when I was in college my best friends and I used to have rowdy no-holds-barred arguments about politics, religion, you name it, infused by that undergraduate willingness to follow an idea wherever it led.

These days I usually find myself in polite (mostly liberal) circles where it’s either assumed that everyone agrees about most things or at the very least that no one wants to start a fight. Which is fair enough! There’s a time and place for everything, and the neighbor’d backyard barbeque may not be the place for a verbal throwdown over the Iraq war or abortion. But I do occasionally miss those epic battles of yore.

In some ways I think genuine closeness allows for more frank disagreement. You can speak your mind more freely with someone that you know already accepts you. You’re not as worried about appearing as a person with the “correct” views on everything.

But it does seem that there could be “deal-breakers,” though what they are will obviously vary from person to person. The writer of the Boston Globe piece linked above couldn’t understand why his liberal boyfriend couldn’t abide his support for the GOP. But it’s not tough to see that a gay man might take the GOP’s record on gay rights pretty personally: how do you have a relationship with someone who supports a political party that, in your view, is trying to deny you fundamental rights? Whether that’s a fair argument or not, it’s not difficult to see why someone might feel that strongly about it. On the other hand, most people won’t be moved to quite the same heights of passion by, say, the farm bill or tax credits.

So, how about you? Do you have friends, relatives, spouses, lovers with whom you disagree strongly about politics? How do you negotiate those differences? Heated arguments? Friendly ribbing? Polite silence? Are there “deal-breaker” issues where you couldn’t see yourself in a relationship or friendship with someone who took the opposing view?

6 thoughts on “The political is the personal

  1. If I have to discuss it at work, I usually don’t speak much at all. Other people are quite willing to spend a lot of time express their opinions, rarely give me time to express mine, and I’m not all that keen in wasting time on the discussion anyway. Besides, I have tenure to think about. 🙂

    If I have to discuss it at home then if it’s with my parents or brothers see above. But if it’s with my wife or son we tend to have polite discussions and agree to disagree. Note that my wife’s family is Russian, with a nostalgia for the great days of the Stalinist 1950s. While I am not as conservative as I was in my Buckley-reading college days, I remain convinced that Reagan, of “Evil Empire” fame, was a great & greatly needed president. Neither of us has done much to turn the other into a reflection, and we almost never talk about politics. Instead we discuss literature, religion, culture, or (more often) our insane children. And my home is, oddly enough, a lot happier than it ever was in the politically-charged households of the family that I grew up with.

  2. Camassia

    I generally stay out of political arguments, but I think where this becomes a problem is when you enter the very blurry zone between politics and morals. I think most of our political convictions spring from moral convictions, but there’s a difference between disagreements over how to apply them (e.g., whether welfare is more helpful or harmful to the poor) and disagreements over the morals themselves (e.g., whether the government can ever torture people). It seems to me that the former type of disagreement can be lived with, but I don’t think I could be in a relationship with a person I have serious moral differences with.

  3. About gays and the GOP, I know a number of gays who favor the GOP in part because the idea of the Democrats taking some of their earnings to do good things for the unfortunate masses so many of whom are at best mildly intolerant is just too much for them.

    Imagine a chunk of your income going for aid to someone who shouts weekends on street corners, “God hates fags!”

    How much would you expect Shylock to donate to a Christian cripple’s welfare fund, really?

    Not to say such an attitude is right. But it’s definitely out there and definitely understandable.

    It helps to realize frank discussion and exchange of views doesn’t have to turn into debate, much less a furious effort to convert or, worst of all, defeat.

    It helps to realize people’s views change over time, anyway, in lots of ways. Only a fool would risk a divorce today for what he may not believe tomorrow, eh?

    If it is better than not for a denomination to be “broad church,” how much more is that true for a marriage?

    And, anyway, life is not a seminar even if it is, really, partly that. Aristotle, Plato, and maybe Bloom to the contrary, notwithstanding.

    A propos, I just wrote this.

    All the same, not everybody agrees with my preference for the non-argumentative approach. Nor did I, in fact, when young. What a pain in the butt I was, especially to my own family!

    Nowadays I avoid discussions with the young, though for several years I actually taught college. It is too important to them to be right, or to convince, or even just to win. Discussion with them is often unpleasant for those of us who aren’t into that sort competitive pseudo-violence.

  4. Camassia, I think your distinction between politics and morals is an important one (if fuzzy, as you point out). It’s much easier to disagree about how a particular moral belief should be applied than over a fundamental value itself.

    Gaius, your comment reminds me of Robert Nozick’s idea of “philosophical explanation” versus “coercive” argument to defeat one’s opponent. Nozick suggested that philosophy ought properly aim as showing how certain concepts were coherent or could be true rather than defeating one’s opponents in argument by “forcing” them to come to your conclusions (which is, perhaps, fitting considering his libertarian politics – minimal coercion in the political and intellectual spheres!

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