An opportunity for understanding
January 30, 2014 9:17 AM   Subscribe

A friend and I are far apart politically, but I see a potential opportunity to come closer together. What is the best way to approach this? It is very delicate.


I have a friend, Anna, who is very opposed to any form of compulsory contribution to social safety nets. She unironically refers to tax as theft; when waiting for her tax refund, she will say things like, "I'm waiting for the government to return my family's stolen property to us."

Anna married very young to a member of the armed forces. He is in a branch of the armed forces that does not fight overseas. (Sorry that I have to leave all these keywords out, they are very active online.)

So, although she did not graduate from high school and has not worked outside the home since marriage, she has had a prosperous middle class life for many years, with good health benefits, multiple cars, currently in the process of buying a house, and increasing their family size.

I struggled through those early years alone, without even health care or dental care for a very long time. Anna and I grew up together and she had a rough upbringing, so ultimately I am happy and relieved for her that she is safe and well with a good happy life, since before she got married it was on a path to going very differently.

But it has been hurtful and bewildering to me, that while Anna lives and increases her family on a salary paid by other people's tax money, including mine, that she forcefully rails against social support for others... for people like me. I also don't understand how Anna can refer to tax as theft while living on a salary that is paid entirely by tax money.

My question

Recently, Anna sent out a message about her husband's upcoming retirement from the armed forces. It was about ways that the ways that the government was "screwing them over." Anna described how her husband would not get to truly retire (he will still be in his 30s when he is out) and instead, both of them would have to get jobs. Anna described how it would be difficult for them to live on his lifetime pension, which will be "only" 50% of his current salary. She stated the amount per month that his pension would be, and it was staggering. It comes close to my own current salary.

Anna ended her message with a request for the message recipients to help her protest this, to participate in activism for better benefits for armed forces members and their families.

The entire message made me feel hurt, and if I'm being honest, also quite bitter. But then I realized that it might be the best opportunity we have had so far to talk about these things.

If Anna can openly request help to increase social/governmental support for her own family, if she can see how hard it is when those things are decreased, perhaps this is a time when she would be more open than usual to expanding it a bit, to other people as well. If she can openly request social support for herself, she might be more openminded to a discussion about why it is important for the rest of society too,

I need help with this.

I feel like I am too close to this issue and if I'm being honest, probably also have too much bitterness about it. Anna is also extremely defensive, and very quick to feel attacked and hurt. (I don't blame her for this at all, I think it is largely because of the circumstances she grew up in.) But that means I need advice from someone more objective, who is outside the situation, on the best way to start up this conversation with her. How would you do it?
posted by the second sock to Human Relations (33 answers total)
Best answer: Do not talk to her about this issue. You will not be able to change her mind in any way, and it will only further damage your friendship.
posted by crazy with stars at 9:19 AM on January 30, 2014 [39 favorites]

Best answer: I would simply say, "You and I have very different viewpoints, some of the things you say in your political statements online hurt me deeply, as I feel that you're attacking programs that could help people like me. I know that you believe what you believe and I believe what I believe, and I also know that we've been close friends for a long time and I value your friendship. Can we agree to disagree and to not discuss these issues when we're together?'

That's the only civil way to do it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:21 AM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think she will see the equivalencies you're seeing here. In her mind, her family is entitled to lifetime support in the manner to which they have become accustomed due to her husband's service. In her mind, his 12 years (?) of service should translate into a lifetime at full pension. One could certainly debate whether this is reasonable, but for her, there's no comparison to giving benefits to people who have done "nothing" for the country.

There is no productive conversation here.
posted by BrashTech at 9:25 AM on January 30, 2014 [11 favorites]

Is Anna trying to get you to understand her position on this matter?
posted by Kruger5 at 9:27 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

To make an argument that welfare and military pay are morally equivalent is pretty hard to do, or, perhaps, it's an argument in support of a position very few people (on any side of the debate) believe.
posted by MattD at 9:28 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: But then I realized that it might be the best opportunity we have had so far to talk about these things.

This is far from the best time. Her family is about lose 50% of their income, forcing radical changes on them, so she's naturally upset and defensive. Sure, one argue about whether that 50% is enough money for their family, but good luck with trying to convince your friend of what you believe.

I also don't understand how Anna can refer to tax as theft while living on a salary that is paid entirely by tax money.

The common refrain I've heard is that they're putting their lives on the line, so they deserve the money. Again, reasonable people could argue about that, but your friend doesn't sound very reasonable.

You sound like you're very hurt and wish to strike back at your friend for hurting you. That rarely ends well. Have you two talked about this and how hurt you feel over the struggles you've had? That might be a better place to start.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:28 AM on January 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

1. Do not offer any opinion on this if it stays to the email form letter/facebook post/general-broadcast-to-everyone level.

2. If she specifically reaches out to you personally to ask for help, tell her that "listen, I love you, but this is an issue that you know that you and I will never agree on, and I don't want to fight about this- and if I offer my opinion, that's what we'll end up doing. I'm not in a position to help you, and I think you'll agree it's best that I not elaborate on why. Thanks."

3. If she presses you for a reason why you're not helping, stick to that party line - "we already know we don't agree on this, and I don't want to get into a fight about this. If you keep nagging me for help or asking me why I won't, I'm going to have to end this conversation/visit/phone call." And then if she keeps pressing, do that. And keep doing it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:29 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I mean, you can point out that she's advocating for an increase in something that she herself considers theft, but don't expect to have a friend when you're done. She's in some cognitive dissonance and you're not going to jar her out of it. Don't ask me how I know this.
posted by gauche at 9:34 AM on January 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

"Her family is about lose 50% of their income"

Actually, due to the way military pay and allowances work, most individuals retiring at 20 years and "50%" wind up seeing almost a 2/3 reduction in total take home pay.

It certainly helps, but almost nobody manages to live off of that amount after retiring.
posted by The Blue Olly at 9:40 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't think her efforts to advocate for her family to receive additional government support are enough for her to gain sympathy for people doing the same in other contexts.

Why? Well, in the minds of many people who hold her libertarian/conservative world view, military are set apart as a "special case," and their compassion doesn't extend to other groups.

I know it doesn't make sense to you (or a lot of people), but it does make sense to her.

I would try to respect the fact that she cares enough to take a position on issues, even if it's contrary to your politics. Having opinion beats the hell out of apathy any day of the week.

And, remember that having a political view means your friend is interested in making society better, although you and her may not agree on what "better" consists of or how to get there.

Don't try to change her mind, but do try to remind yourself that she isn't a foreign species and that you and her are ultimately interested in improving the way the world works.
posted by gohabsgo at 9:45 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Um. You do realize that, in your friend's view, people like you pushing for more money to go to social services is the REASON why her husband only gets 50% of his income for pension, right? What she sees is as simple as (a) lots of taxes, (b) too much going to welfare, not enough going to military. Basically, the welfare people are taking more of the "pie" that people like her husband legitimately deserve. And in that particular philosophy, military is one of the only few legitimate responsibilities of government: it serves a very basic function of protecting the safety and security of a country, which is the standard common conservative limit on what government should do (aka government exists to protect/enforce laws against theft and violence etc, but should not involve itself in everyday life). So she isn't going to see a conflict or hypocrisy here.

As someone else above pointed out, the fact that military and welfare spending are not really comparable things is... pretty universally understood among thinking people, on every side of the fence, whether you are conservative or liberal. So coming at it from a perspective where you think it's obviously the same kind of thing is going to be an immediate and probably violent turnoff for your friend, likely causing you to lose the friendship.
posted by celtalitha at 9:49 AM on January 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

Edit: I should have put "economic conservative" instead of "conservative" since that can be confused with social stuff. I'm thinking from a libertarian or strict far-right economic stance since that's what I get from the "tax as theft" comments.
posted by celtalitha at 9:53 AM on January 30, 2014

At Christmas, my uncle (who is extraordinarily well off) and grandma were lamenting the fact that my younger cousin (who just turned 26) and her 28 year old fiance and their child didn't have health insurance, and how they don't know what they're going to do about it because neither of them work (cough, living on a trust fund, cough) so can't get insurance through employers.

Meanwhile, they are Obama sucks this and Obama sucks that people.

I stared at them both goggle eyed, and was all "but BECAUSE of the affordable care act cousin can stay on YOUR health plan for an extra year and unemployed fiance can get subsidized insurance on the exchange!! aaaaaahhh!!!!"

And they just did not get it. Like, did not sink through at all, because they were both SO charged up and SO convinced that everything about the system was country-destroying and that Obama was stealing their money, they would not listen. Nothing connected at all. Nothing stuck. It was like trying to throw dry spaghetti at a teflon wall.

My point is, this is futile. I'm sorry. Your friend is past the point of reason, and absolutely nothing you say is going to convince her of anything. And it will make you sad and pissed, to boot.

Don't bother.
posted by phunniemee at 9:58 AM on January 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't expect my circle of friends to be an echo chamber. I also don't know why people send these group emails, but I suppose they think they're inspiring other people to action or expression, but whatever. If you enjoy her company, delete the email and ignore it. If you aren't that close and don't expect to spend much time together, delete the email and ignore it. You're not going to change her mind.
And resenting her for her lifestyle is only going to make you more unhappy. Comparing her life and yours is not productive, I think.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:00 AM on January 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am..not your friend Anna, but we probably wouldn't be ashamed to say hello in the street.

This is not going to end the way you would like it to end. There are, as other people have noted, pretty significant differences between military retirement spending and welfare spending, and it is not considered a "social safety net" so much as payment for services rendered. Off the top of my head, without knowing the specifics, her husband is probably being forced out of the service - otherwise, he would have the option to stay in and continue to increase his pension percentage. The ways she is complaining about the government "screwing" them may have to do with him being forced out of the service, not about the specific percentage.

There are legitimate libertarian points that can be made about why military pay from taxation is also theft, and there are legitimate libertarian counters - I could go into them, but it seems like that's not really what you're asking.

The really important question is, why is it important to you to convince Anna, and why is it important for you to approach her at this time?

From an outside observer, it seems like you are resentful of Anna and her husband overall - you note that their 50% pay is close to your full salary, and that you are hurt by this. You make multiple references to her being able to "increase their family size", and you point out that she did not graduate from high school - are you personally unable to afford children? Is there an element of feeling that things are "unfair" that Anna has been living as well as she has?

It seems like you're hoping to kick her when the chips are down, and that her being at a low point will get her to agree with you. If that's not what you're actually trying to do, you may want to think about why it appears that way, because I am sure it may also appear that way to Anna.
posted by corb at 10:04 AM on January 30, 2014 [11 favorites]

Political opinions are amazingly resilient to attempts to use data to change them.

Think of an opinion that you hold strongly. Imagine that someone told you of a study that showed the exact opposite was the case. You would likely reject the study's conclusions for some reason that might make sense (what was their sample size? were their questionnaires valid and reliable?. Now imagine that another study shows your original opinion is exactly correct. Would you question the study's methodology to the same extent? We hold onto our biases for deep-seated emotional/ moral reasons.

Why do you want her to change her views? Can't you see your way clear to just be friends without having her share your political views? Could you just agree to disagree with her as Ruthless Bunny suggests above?
posted by jasper411 at 10:09 AM on January 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

You do understand that working to provide a good or service to a client is wholly different than receiving welfare benefits or charity right? Even if the client is the govt/us taxpayers. Military service results in compensation for work completed. Welfare is not given in exchange for work (goods or service). I don't understand your attempt to make them equivalent.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 10:11 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Without meaning to sound too glib, people who don't believe in the social safety net are, more often than not, simply assholes and generally don't have the internal perspective to see the ways in which they benefit from the collective weal.

You will never change their minds, and you don't need them in your life.

Don't bother with her. Move on and surround yourself with better people.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:15 AM on January 30, 2014 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: TestamenttoGrace asked this question: "Welfare is not given in exchange for work (goods or service). I don't understand your attempt to make them equivalent."

I was thinking more of things like national healthcare and school funding than welfare, but I do get what you are saying.

One place where I saw an equivalency is that if you believe that tax is theft, then if you are accepting tax money it means you are accepting stolen goods, regardless of whether you are getting the money as a salary or not.

But I want to thank everyone who replied. This is exactly why I came to you guys before saying anything. Thank you.
posted by the second sock at 10:58 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Talking about money is tacky. Arguing about politics with coworkers is pointless.

Arguing about the politics that affect your coworker's money is tacky and pointless. What's your goal here?
posted by oceanjesse at 11:27 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Corb also brought up "Is there an element of feeling that things are "unfair" that Anna has been living as well as she has?"

I feel intense relief that Anna has been living as well as she has. Before Anna was married I was terrified about how her life would go. She was in some scary situations where she was barely getting by and living with troubling things.

I directly attribute Anna's safety, prosperity, and happiness in life to the fact that she has a government salary and government benefits supporting her.

I think of all the Annas out there who went the other way, because they never got the support that they needed. I think of how forcefully she is opposed to that support, and it makes me pretty upset.

I brought up her increase in family because it's going past accepting government support for her own needs. Making the choice to increase her family is making the choice to increase her family needs significantly, and the government support that takes. It just doesn't make sense to me, but that's why it is so important and helpful for me to hear everyone else's perspectives.
posted by the second sock at 11:27 AM on January 30, 2014

Response by poster: Sorry about threadsitting, last clarification.

For oceanjesse: Anna's my friend of over 20 years, not a coworker. My goal was to see if this was a good time to come to more of a political understanding, but I absolutely hear what everyone in this thread is saying (and I'm grateful).
posted by the second sock at 11:31 AM on January 30, 2014

I don't think you will be able to change her opinion. Think of your reaction to her email. That is the same reaction she will probably have if you decide to discuss it.

It was inconsiderate for her to send out a mass email to her friends complaining about her monetary situation, especially when she is better off than at least some of her friends. I consider it tactless to start forcing your political opinion on others (part of the reason I don't use Facebook).

I don't think there is any way you can broach this issue without jeopardizing your friendship. If you do decide to broach the issue, I would take the stance that you don't feel comfortable talking about politics with her and that you'd prefer she not send you messages about political issues.
posted by parakeetdog at 11:40 AM on January 30, 2014

Mod note: OP is not anon, please send answers that are not direct answers to the "What should I do" question to MeMail, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:46 AM on January 30, 2014

You could also probably talk to her about the emotional ways that message made you feel, without getting into the politics.

"When you sent that message it really hurt me: I'm not making much more than that myself, and I feel like you haven't been interested in activism to help raise my salary."

It addresses the actual problems it seems you have of emotional hurt, while still avoiding attacking someone at a vulnerable time.
posted by corb at 11:52 AM on January 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't think political conversations are productive like this, and they often lead to hurt feelings. This is perhaps especially true when you are friends and when, as here, you are very emotional about these issues.
posted by J. Wilson at 12:07 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Look, I think I know how you feel. I have a very close friend who is a career housewife/stay home mom married to a commercial pilot, whose husband makes more money than I will probably make in my lifetime. I had to hide her from Facebook because she was constantly posting articles and rants about people who don't work but expect others (society) to support them, or about the evils of public school (she homeschools, which is awesome for her, but she's also fucking rich and living off her husband and has never worked a full time job or paid her own bills in her entire life so WTF?) or about how horrible it was that their taxes were going to go up and they weren't going to be able to go to Hawaii next summer as a family because of damned Obama (not even kidding you). It just reeked of so much naivety and privilege and lack of self-awareness that I couldn't take it anymore.

I have tried to discuss things with her before, not necessarily to change her mind but to at least get her to think a little more deeply about what she's saying, and the result has sometimes been that she understands/nods/says "yeah, I understand that" and the next day she's back posting the same thing. Note: I made the mistake of arguing with her on a few posts and the only result was (a) long flame wars with both our friends flinging ridiculous insults at each other and (b) her husband logging into her account and blocking me and my entire family. So definitely don't do anything online.

So the result has been that, much as I understand the arguments, and loved her as a friend growing up, and much as 90% of my family agrees with her politics/philosophy, I couldn't stomach it anymore and had to distance myself. I think this sort of discourse only works if you're close, you're talking in real life, and you already have the sort of relationship where you both share and discuss your ideas with each other. If you don't have that sort of relationship, one person's time of stress/frustration is ABSOLUTELY NOT a productive time for you to jump in with your "see? HYPOCRITE" told-you-so kind of zinger. It will never, ever go well. I say this with certainty as a person who has done a lot of that jumping-in over the years and is just now at the old age of 30 beginning to realize how ineffective and unkind it is.
posted by celtalitha at 12:13 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Which is more important:

1) Anna agreeing with you and you both coming to some kind of mutual understanding about the value of social programs


2) Being friends with Anna without having to hear her political tirades and requests for you to join in her activism.

If you want to stay friends with this woman, I think you should aim for 2. If she asks you to join her crusade, tell her that won't be possible.
posted by inertia at 12:45 PM on January 30, 2014

You can't use reason to argue someone out of a position they arrived at by strong emotion (such as anger) rather than reason.
posted by aught at 12:48 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

People like that have self-imposed blinders on, and they're not someone you can reason with. It's possible, too, that she's become indoctrinated in her husband's way of thinking. (Which is interesting in itself, because there are a great many servicemember families in need of social services, up to and including food stamps.)

If you wish to keep future lines of communication open, just ignore messages like this; should she seek a response directly from you, use the old "that's not possible" line.

She isn't going to change, she isn't going to learn - and should God and/or karma lead her to a different place in the future, she's going to have a *much* more difficult time, based on her belief system - in other words, she'll (superficially) learn the hard way.

For example: Say a few years down the road, her husband leaves her. She'll be left as nothing more than that uneducated single mom hoping for child support and state help that she now so despises. Maybe, at that point, you could offer to direct her to relevant services. Occasionally, then, they eat their words.

Other time, they're like some posters I've seen here on MF - they believe they're "above" needing medicaid or food stamps, but their opinion of their status and their actual financial situation are two entirely different things.
posted by stormyteal at 1:25 PM on January 30, 2014

I also don't understand how Anna can refer to tax as theft while living on a salary that is paid entirely by tax money.

I can think of a few possibilities:
  1. She doesn't really think taxes are equivalent to theft; it's just a rhetorical device.
  2. She doesn't think that the portion that goes to programs she supports or personally benefit her is theft.
  3. She doesn't care about the eventual source of the money, her husband is getting honest pay for honest work.

posted by grouse at 1:36 PM on January 30, 2014

Were I you, I would bookmark corb's answer and refer to it any time you have the urge to have this discussion with Anna. Practically, philosophically, politically, and empathetically, it has all the information you need to know how to proceed.
posted by KathrynT at 2:48 PM on January 30, 2014

Politics can't resolve value conflicts.

Even if you and Anna manage to agree on one specific political issue (health care for vets, for example), it won't matter -- the crux of the issue is that you and she have fundamentally different value systems, and you're not going to be able to change that by discussing politics with her.

If you think she's an overall good, trustworthy person, then I think you should just assure yourself that her heart is in the right place and that, as Obama used to say, changing or even figuring out her civic theories are "above your pay grade."

If my experience in these kind of conflicts is anything to go by, she doesn't even realize that these issues/ideas/groups directly impact or apply to you, and trying to get it through to her that they do will be like trying to climb a greased pole. Don't set yourself up for that kind of frustration if you can help it. There's just no way that can end well.
posted by rue72 at 11:12 PM on January 30, 2014

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