Friendship and Political Disagreement

On facebook today a friend posted a link to this (pseudo-)story: discussing last weekend’s protests is “causing rifts in relationships”.

It’s certainly not journalism (in the sense that it’s a two or three anecdotes strung together) but it’s probably true for plenty of people (and false for others). But I happened to read it while listening to ‘Still D.R.E.’, in which the titular hero re-affirms his G-status by explaining that he’s “still puffing the leafs, still with the beats, still not loving police”, and it occurred to me that the rhetorical role of that last claim is related to the above article.

Utter, utter bastards, and the poor brave folks who have to deal with them.

This then reminded me of something I’ve noticed sometimes when reading about political ideas. My emotional response to a writer is more swiftly and decisively influenced when they attack or reject another idea or person or group than when they praise or support one. And when they do express support for something, my reaction is greater the more controversial that thing is – i.e. the more other writers they implicitly break with in doing so. Someone saying that they support happiness, prosperity, fairness, and rewarding lives for the disadvantaged leaves me cold, compared to someone saying ‘the problem is that capitalists run everything’, or endorsing ‘socialism’.

In all these examples, what emerges is that, under a wide range of circumstances, solidarity which is exclusive, which is based around breaking solidarity with someone else, is especially potent. There’s more emotional traction in having shared enemies than in having shared friends (though even more, obviously, in combining both).

This isn’t surprising or hard to explain – indeed, there are several available reasons this might be the case:

1. It might just be that broken solidarity is more attention-grabbing, inherently – that our mind is set up to focus disproportionately on ‘enemies’, in the same way that a pain will often distract us from a pleasure of equal intensity.

2. It might be a matter of frequency – living in a society, affirmations of solidarity (however thin, ambiguous, or hypocritical) are all-pervasive, so that who you’re against is more attention-grabbing.

3. More interestingly, it might be that the action of breaking solidarity with some person or group generates anxiety, which generates an intensified, ‘compensating’ desire to re-affirm solidarity, which is acheived by finding others to share that breaking.

4. A further development of 3, though, might be that the solidarity thus re-affirmed feels stronger and more meaningful, in the same way that we feel more powerful and accomplished after first finding something difficult and then overcoming it.

The correct explanation may well be a combination of all of these in different degrees.

So whenever there are, for independent reasons, some pressures towards breaking solidarity with two different groups – for instance, if some people are caused, by their life experiences, to have some measure of hostility to the police, while others are caused to have some measure of hostility to ‘crime’ – then positive solidarities, feelings of togetherness or support, will grow up around them as a by-product, like scars around small cuts. When these feelings of togetherness cross-cut with other such feelings (e.g. between personal friends) the result might naturally tend to be acrimonious – precisely because it’s not just a ‘disagreement’ but a matter of social feelings.

A final implication: this all suggests that positions which reject no-one, which refuse to name anyone as their enemies, are liable, other things being equal, to remain emotionally shallow, compared to positions that do. Or maybe the implication is that adherents of the latter positions will perceive these ‘even-handed’ positions as emotionally shallow?

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2 Responses to Friendship and Political Disagreement

  1. timlshort says:

    What about someone who doesn’t support “happiness, prosperity, fairness, and rewarding lives for the disadvantaged”?

    And if the person/group you are against is trying to take your money, that makes them more salient right there…

    • lukeroelofs says:

      “And if the person/group you are against is trying to take your money, that makes them more salient right there…”
      It does indeed – and even worse is when they’re trying to keep their own money.

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