Saturday, November 15, 2008

Political agreement shouldn't be a condition of friendship

(First published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 12)

On the evening of election day my wife and I were at a wedding.

At one point during the celebrations the groom, an old friend who was marrying for the second time, came and sat at our table.

Another old friend, who has never disguised his conservative political leanings, made a provocative comment about the elections.

The groom, who leans the other way politically, responded. There was a brief but sharp exchange which resulted in the groom angrily getting up and leaving the table.

Probably just as well that he did. The last thing anyone wants at a wedding is a political shouting match, least of all one involving the groom.

I sighed with despair. These men are good mates, both of mine and of each other. I felt like banging their stubborn heads together.

We live in a democracy – one of the world’s freest and most enlightened democracies, at that. And democracy depends on people respecting the right of others to hold different views.

Why can’t people, old friends especially, simply accept that others think differently? Why must they try to assert their own political opinions over those who take a contrary position?

I’ve often pondered this, partly because my friends occupy every conceivable point on the political spectrum. If I chose them on the basis of political compatibility I would have a very dreary and narrow circle of acquaintances.

Many of my oldest and dearest friends have political views that are sharply opposed to mine. Over the years I’ve migrated politically from what might have been considered a vaguely leftish position to one that some people would characterise as right-wing, but I still like and respect my old friends for exactly the same reasons that attracted me to them in the first place. We don’t disagree on goals so much as how to achieve them.

In any case, although I admit using labels such as “left” and “right” for journalistic convenience, I regard them as hopelessly inadequate to convey the complexities of politics. Politics is more about shades of grey than black and white, and I still find myself on common ground with left-wing friends on many issues (Iraq, to give one obvious example).

In the company of most of these friends, politics is treated as a no-go area. They know and I know that we’re at odds, and so we generally skirt around political issues. If we express our views at all, it’s either in a humorous way – making light of the fact that we’re poles apart – or in a neutral, matter-of-fact way that says, “Well, this is what I think, but I know you think differently and I’m not going to try and harangue you into submission”.

I have no interest in knowing how my friends vote. It has no bearing on my relationship with them. If they ask me how I vote (which happens rarely), I’ll tell them, because in a free society there should be no shame or embarrassment in standing up for what you believe in.

But I don’t generally initiate such discussions, and neither do I expect my friends to accept my views. I feel no missionary urge to convert them. All I insist on is that they respect my right to hold my opinions, just as I do theirs. For the most part, happily, they do.

But it seems there are always people for whom this is not good enough. They demand that you not only hear their opinions but yield to them, and that you listen respectfully as they make provocative statements that they know you disagree with. What’s the point, for heaven’s sake?

I have often listened to someone I know badmouthing another person in my circle of friends, purely on the basis of their supposed politics. Often they don’t even know the other person; it’s enough to know that they differ politically.

Sometimes they draw wildly incorrect conclusions about other people, purely on the basis that they are presumed to hold a particular view on a particular issue. That’s a very shallow basis on which to condemn someone, because there’s much more to people than their political beliefs.

Ironically, some of the worst offenders are people who smugly (and mistakenly) think of themselves as liberals. The problem here is that the word “liberal” is often used as a synonym for left-leaning or “progressive”, when in its classical sense it means open-minded and tolerant of different opinions.

Some of the most illiberal people I know fancifully think of themselves as liberal. Sadly this category includes many journalists, as could be seen from the way the so-called “liberal” American press ridiculed and sneered at Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

What they revealed was their intolerance of any views that challenged their own self-righteous elitism. It didn’t seem to occur to them – or at least it certainly didn’t deter them – that Palin spoke for a very substantial constituency of conservative Americans who, in a democracy, were as entitled as anyone to be represented.

Fortunately in our own country we are generally blessed with politicians who, when it counts, have the good grace to concede that they don’t necessarily have a monopoly on wisdom or truth. Hence the dignified acceptance by Helen Clark of her defeat on Saturday night, and a pleasantly rancour-free speech by Winston Peters.

When it came to the crunch, they accepted that the people had spoken – and the people, as Mike Moore reminded us when Labour was dumped in 1990, are always right. This is the central pillar of democracy, and politicians who can’t accept it should stand aside for those who do.

That includes people such as Labour list MP Charles Chauvel, who reportedly said at the weekend that New Zealanders had elected a “little, nasty, brutish government”. In effect he was attacking the right of the people to elect the government of their choosing, which strikes me as profoundly anti-democratic. Perhaps we should charitably put it down to election night emotion.


Steve Withers said...

Hi Karl.

Generally, I agree. People should be able to tolerate differences of opinion and they generally do.

Where they begin to run into trouble is where the matters under consideration move beyond opinion and into the lives of those concerned.

For example: A woman at a party whose partner has just left her and shot through to Australia and now exists hand to mouth on the DPB should not be expected to remain calm while listening to someone at a wedding, who has never been in such a position, slagging off people like her as "bludgers".

For example: Someone who votes for a minor party will not stand calmly by while someone makes a case for dumping MMP and stripping them of their ability to elect the people they support to represent them. It's not a happy moment hearing a "friend" tell everyone your vote should be made worthless it once was. Wars have been fought over less.

I can conjure many such examples, but these will do.

There are issues that should not brought up out is simple consideration for others. Or you'll get exactly what you deserve - right between the eyes.

Steve Withers said...

Just as I hit enter, it came to me: You can't go wrong if you speak about - whatever - from your own position. How it affects you personally.

Where people go wrong is to start talking about others...others who they may very well not understand fully - if at all.

Summarised, it might come down to:

While one can critique the subject under discussion based on verifiable facts, it is important to distinguish facts from belief or prejudice. An open mind helps. No one has a monopoly on wisdom or experience.

Last but not least: If you haven't got something positive and constructive to say, then put a cork in it.

This week I heard a senior exec in an NZ company describe Helen Clark to an overseas colleague on the phone as "a lesbian and a cow".

That changed my view of that man.

Whether you agree with her or not, she deserves more respect that that.

Respect. Yes. That's it.

One should not expect any if one shows none.

Vaughan said...

I think we all need to practice the art of discussing ideas rather than the people who express them.

e.g. It is more effective to say:
"I don't agree with the idea that we should change to driving on the right side of the road" than to blurt out: "That crackpot Vaughan with his crazy idea about driving on the right!"

When ideas are discussed in a moderate fashion without mentioning the person who put them forward, solutions can be found.

In my experience, this system works amazingly well whether in big organisations, clubs or in informal situations.

People aren't afraid to put up unconventional ideas, and it is often these that solve the problem.