How to be friends despite having a different political or religious viewpoint

WHR Singapore

Everywhere we look we see issues dividing the inhabitants of this tiny planet – red states and blue states, religious people versus atheists, left versus right – not to mention the many emotive social issues that often puts people at daggers drawn against one another.

The unfortunate thing that the acrimony of these debates often prevent us from seeing those ‘on the other side’ as real people – people with hopes, dreams, feelings and problems just like us – and instead we choose as our social circle people with the same ideas and views. In this climate, it seems a miracle that there are still people who can stay friends despite having wildly different viewpoints – but there are, and the world is a better place for it. So, here are a few thoughts on keeping alive that flame of mutual respect and appreciation and not letting differences of opinion consume your friendship.

Resist the temptation to stereotype

Too often we are prone to characterize opposing political or religious viewpoints in a couple of contemptuous lines. In addition to its dehumanising effect, this summary often tends to be a distillation of all that we see ‘bad’ in the other position and can make people who hold that position seem much more extreme, so the two opposing positions seem impossible to bridge.

I was reminded of this when I watched a video of an extremely entertaining and illumining play, called Jefferson and Adams, describing the legendary relationship between the second and third Presidents of the United States. Originally close friends who worked together to draft the Declaration of Independence, they soon found their relationship increasingly strained due to their political positions – Adams was on the Federalist side which favoured closer ties with Great Britain and more centralized control, whereas the Republicans were led by Jefferson and favoured minimalist government. The relationship between the two very quickly deteriorated, the low point being the extremely acrimonious Presidential election of 1800 where the two sides characterized each other in most unfavourable (and often untrue) terms – it was so bad that afterwards Adams could not bring himself to attend Jefferson’s inauguration.

However, later on in life Jefferson and Adams reconciled and wrote long and touching letters to each other, which the play uses to create a dialogue between the two – one very moving scene is where they realise the stereotype they created of each other’s positions. “Did you really think I wanted to have an American King?” Adams asks; “Did you really think I wanted to have lawless mobs on the streets?” replies Jefferson, both with great sadness in their voices, as they recalled how this scaremongering on both sides misrepresented what they actually felt.

You can resist this temptation to stereotype by taking a couple of minutes to stand in your friend’s shoes. With your heart, really try to empathise with him or her, and why she feels the way she does. With the heart, you can also feel the qualities that made you friends in the first place, qualities that go far beyond any simple stereotype and transcend their stance on any particular issue.

Don’t make your belief part of your ego structure

Often we include our beliefs on religion or politics as part of our self-image. Unconscuously we identify with that ego-shell as being ‘us’, and then when our viewpoint is challenged we often defensively lash out much quicker than we actually need to because we feel that a part of ‘us’ is being threatened.

However, in moments of reflection and sincerity, we can see that our self-image is only skin-deep and that the ‘real us’ runs much deeper than mere statements. Further more, when we go beyond this surface shell, we see that the human race, no matter what ideas each of us might hold, have much more to unite us than divide us. The best qualities of humanity – goodness, kindness and empathy – are not the monopoly of any one idea or group, but come from somewhere deep inside each and every one of us. We all can appreciate beauty, and we all can identify with the human condition. Most importantly for a friendship, we definitely all like having fun! Make sure your friendship includes a large dollop of humour, fun and plain old-fashioned silliness, and that you don’t spend all day discussing the issues.

See things from a different angle

Often we get ourselves into a rut because the language we use to frame the debate constrains us so that we are pitched directly against the other viewpoint. Say for example, you are pro something and your friend is against – this is a position which it pretty much insurmountable. However you can change the ‘camera angle’ you have on the debate by exploring your position. Perhaps you might discover that you are pro something, but only because social conditions mean that it is the ‘least worst’ option. Maybe if you are anti something, you might see that amongst the billions of unique human circumstances in the world, there are certain cases your position might not cover so well. There are always ways to reframe the question so you can make progress – for example, agreeing to spend your energy tackling the underlying causes of why the issue is arising in the first place.

Be grateful for opposing points of view

It is definitely possible to believe in something and yet still be grateful for the opposing point of view for challenging and enabling you to get to the essence of that belief. For example, one can believe in God and still be grateful for the role atheism has played over the years in liberating that belief from superstition, fear and dogma.

Criticism isn’t always the best solution

One major problem is that we often ‘shoot from the hip’ and instinctively criticize. Even if the viewpoint a person holds gives rise to glaring wrongs, there are still sometimes situations where your criticism can actually make things worse, bringing their pride to the fore and instinctively pushing them behind their psychological shell where there is no hope of dialogue or engagement – indeed they may increasingly celebrate the kind of behaviour you find repulsive as a sign of their identity. At such times we have to ask ourselves which matters more – shouting from the moral high ground (which might make us temporarily feel good) or actually solving the problem.

Sometimes in this case it helps to approach people in a spirit of humility. Find one good thing the person or group in question has that you or your own community is lacking, praise it, and try and learn from it. Just as criticizing something often makes those bad qualities come to the fore, so praise can often bring to the fore those very goodnesses you are praising them for, and also make them see you in a new light. In this way, you can build an atmosphere of trust, friendship, and willingness to listen to what each other has to say, and you can begin to discuss the problem with a chance that you will actually be listened to.

Often example works much better than debate

Often we spend valuable time generating unnecessary friction through trying to argue an idea with our friends when instead we should be putting the same idea into practice through our own example. Many of the great changes in our time have come about through people living their beliefs and inspiring others through their personal example – people like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi spring to mind. Often people are unable to see the benefits of an idea unless they can vividly see it being brought to life. When we debate, we appeal to others minds which can often lead to deadlock. However, when we put an idea into action and show how it can improve the human condition, we appeal to the highest and noblest instincts in all of us.

(Photo: World Harmony Run photo gallery)

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