Is it possible to stay friends with an ex-liberal?
February 28, 2018 4:22 AM   Subscribe

A valued friend, previously liberal and feminist, has swung to the Right. Is friendship still possible?

A previously feminist, left-leaning friend, whom I hadn’t heard from in years, has now outed herself as having turned against feminism and the whole liberal world-view, and become very religious (a branch of Christianity). She and her family are thinking of taking a holiday cottage near me this summer, and she would like us to get together.

I reflexively replied that I would love to see her and the family. I reminded her that I still call myself a feminist and am not in any way religious. She said she was fine with that, and provided more information about her new world-view, which is fairly horrifying from my liberal perspective.

I knew this friend about 15 years ago and liked her very much then. My problem now is that I don’t know if enjoyable social interaction is truly feasible without any reference whatsoever to politics. I don’t want to be someone who can only be friends with people who agree with me on every issue. I don’t get out much, and haven’t been in this situation before, apart from interacting with elderly relatives who casually expressed appalling racist views. I got through those interactions politely enough, but they weren’t my idea of a good time.

What I dread is a scenario where my friend tosses out a casual remark that reflects her new view of reality, and I either feel honour-bound to challenge her assumptions, which could get ill-tempered fairly quickly, or else I bite my tongue and inwardly seethe, which is not conducive to actually having fun.

On the other hand, my friend was always very socially deft and tactful, and I’m not a total idiot. Maybe we can still get along as friends.

Does anybody have personal experience of this kind of thing? Have you been able to remain friends in this scenario, and still enjoy one another’s company? Or is it always doomed?
posted by Grunyon to Human Relations (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don’t want to be someone who can only be friends with people who agree with me on every issue.

There's a huge space between hanging out with people who want to debate more minor policy issues and hanging out with someone who wants to debate whether women (or another group) are actually people who deserve rights and autonomy.
posted by bile and syntax at 4:27 AM on February 28, 2018 [33 favorites]

Can you meet her for coffee or some other time-limited appointment? I don't think you necessarily need to plan on rekindling a life-long friendship. In fact, I think you would be totally justified in not wanting to meet up with her.

But it sounds like in your letter she hasn't herself said anything particularly galling, and I think it would be good for her and good for society if you met up and offered her a little light exposure to someone outside of her circle. If it goes well, you can always plan on more hangouts in the future, and if it doesn't, you know you did a small mitzvah when you tried your best to keep the lines of communication open.
posted by loquacious crouton at 4:39 AM on February 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

I either feel honour-bound to challenge her assumptions, which could get ill-tempered fairly quickly, or else I bite my tongue and inwardly seethe, which is not conducive to actually having fun.

There's a middle ground where you don't correct someone you think is wrong, and you also don't get bothered by the fact that there are people in this world who you disagree with. You describe yourself as fairly sheltered; if you ever want to successfully change that, you're going to need to find that balance. There's no better way to start than with someone you know to be a good person.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:42 AM on February 28, 2018 [64 favorites]

I think there’s a big difference between elderly relatives who were brought up to think racism was the normal default and are now not cognitively able to shed that training, and someone like your friend, who must understand your views and sensitivities pretty well, even if she no longer shares them.
posted by Segundus at 4:47 AM on February 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

You don't have to be best pals with this person. "Holiday cottage this summer" sounds to me like a relatively short-term temporary situation - if so, you could try a short "catching up" lunch or something where it's easy to keep the conversation non-political. If her current world-view is just too much you can beg off further get-togethers because you're "too busy", if she says something really over the top horrible you can tell her off and walk out, and either way she'll be gone from your immediate vicinity in a short while, and you never have to contact her again.

And if it turns out that she can remain perfectly pleasant in person and not bring up her horrible perspectives on everything, then you've rekindled a "light" not-very-serious friendship and can proceed from there.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:47 AM on February 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

A holiday/vacation is a break, a time to relax and recharge. Make it a politics- and religion-free time. Tell her that You will walk away from any discussions on those or other controversial topics. Be firm. Don't engage.
posted by mareli at 4:54 AM on February 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

Could you make a list of 20 things you would like to have a conversation about that are not politics & religion so you have a landing pad for changing the conversation? Things you like to talk about...gardening, travel, being a tourist in your hometown, anything you’ve read & enjoyed...
posted by childofTethys at 5:03 AM on February 28, 2018 [10 favorites]

My problem now is that I don’t know if enjoyable social interaction is truly feasible without any reference whatsoever to politics. 

Do you usually reference politics in your social interactions with others? If you have been friends for 15 years, surely there are many other topics you can discuss without this being an issue.
posted by lovelygirl at 5:11 AM on February 28, 2018 [12 favorites]

The depth of possible friendship depends in the long run on what these horrifying new beliefs are, and the extent to which they commit her to actions and beliefs that are, in your book, actively malevolent. I’ve managed to sustain deep and fun friendships with people who are very different from me because we do share a basic understanding of what’s good and bad and what’s private and public, which allows each of us to think of the other as a (misguided) person of good will. I have not sustained anything beyond nodding acquaintanceship with people whose belief systems have drifted into active malevolence, according to my own belief system.

For example, so far as religion is concerned, suppose she has decided that she personally needs to be celibate or off birth control or to pray ten times a day; that’s nothing to do with you. In politics, suppose she has decided that the best way to eliminate poverty is through private charity instead of a big welfare state. That’s something you can profitably argue about because you share the basic belief that poverty is bad and are only disagreeing about means not ends.

On the other hand, suppose she has decided that her new religious and political beliefs license her to be cruel or bullying towards other women or gay people or immigrants, or to vote to curtail their rights. That’s morally very different and you would have an ethical dilemma on your hands in deciding whether you can close your eyes to that without becoming complicit in the harms she causes. The same will be true if her political beliefs have become so different from yours, now, that you disagree about the truly fundamental things, about ends. For example, suppose she thinks poverty doesn’t matter because the poor deserve to suffer or that racism doesn’t matter because POC are inferior etc. At that point it becomes a question whether you really have a moral vocabulary in common any more and whether friendship—as opposed to bare tolerance—is possible in the absence of such a vocabulary. I have personally never managed anything beyond bare tolerance in that kind of situation.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:19 AM on February 28, 2018 [81 favorites]

Yeah no. It sounds like her beliefs offend you and rightly so - they negate some of your basic rights. Even if she won’t mention them, and she will. Ain‘t nobody got time for for that.

I‘d aim for „short“ and „civil“ rather than „enjoyable“. And next time, be too busy.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:37 AM on February 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

It's kind of unlikely that you will resume an active friendship with her. You might go visit and see if you can learn why someone's views would change so dramatically, why she believes what she does. It would also be courteous, which is an undervalued activity. People believe stuff for many reasons, being able to coexist with them is useful.
posted by theora55 at 5:47 AM on February 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Not to be paranoid, but some Christian sects are more aggressive than others at converting followers. Be wary of escalating invitations of participation in religious events under the guise of "friendship" or "understanding" etc. You're not a bad person to politely decline. (I grew up in the South.)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:52 AM on February 28, 2018 [11 favorites]

It's quite possible for friends with differing political beliefs to find common ground and stay friends. Definitely see her and her family and just see how things go. Personally if I were in your shoes and we had a little time to ourselves I'd want to ask her what caused her to change her beliefs so dramatically and just listen to what she has to say. And ask more questions.

With some more conservative family and friends I just avoid talking politics when we get together. With others I'm able to have more interesting conversations, and that seems to rely on both of us being curious about where the other is coming from instead of knee-jerk offended.

I don't really feel like I chose to be a liberal. I feel like at a certain point in life it was just what made more sense to me - plus I was leaving behind a super-conservative background and made a probably reactionary move to the opposite side, where most of my new support system was - it was more of a social choice than an intellectual choice. Which I don't regret. And that leads me back to being curious about what caused her to make this change.

I also remind myself from time to time that the likelihood that my side is always 100% right about everything and the other side is full of stupid, crazy or ill-informed people who are always 100% wrong, is kind of a long shot. So I try to see some of the gray stuff. It's hard and I'm not good at it.
posted by bunderful at 5:52 AM on February 28, 2018 [11 favorites]

To go against the grain:

no, I wouldn't be able to nor would I want to. I have reached a point in my life (especially now that I have little children) that I have no patience for ideologies that I see as damaging their future, like rejection of feminism or conservative religion.

I hold my tongue for the few relatives of my husband that have such views but I don't voluntarily seek out their company either. I would not be comfortable meeting an old friend who specifically rejected ethical beliefs that I think are the foundation of progress and human rights.

I see no gray area in the acceptance of feminism, for example. You're either a feminist, an ally, or an asshole and I have no time for assholes.
posted by lydhre at 6:31 AM on February 28, 2018 [21 favorites]

Sure. It's how I can visit my father for 4-5 days at a time and end the trip with us both happy. Leave politics and religious talk in the hypothetical realm. If you see her demeaning people to their faces or slapping her kids around in the name of Jesus, that's the time to get confrontational. If it's literally all she can talk about, then you might want to move on because it's very hard to be friends with someone who is only about one subject. Otherwise, there are plenty of topics to talk about.

I also keep in mind that matter how good of a person I try to be, I'll always be someone else's garbage person or milkshake duck or whatever childish term is being used now for people who aren't 100% perfect in every word and deed.
posted by kimberussell at 6:36 AM on February 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

I would meet her beforehand for a shorter visit as suggested upthread, and see how well that goes. There is huge value in being able to get along with people you disagree with, for both you and for them and for us as a species. (But also, you need to decide where your red lines are - where you should draw the line between "well you're wrong, but we can disagree" and "that is awful and repellent and I am not letting it slide." You aren't obliged to hang around smiling and nodding at e.g. neo-nazis.)

One feminism-specific point - I find that as I've aged and grown more feminist, I've also grown conversely more tolerant of women who argue against feminism. Feminism isn't an individual virtue but a political action, for the liberation of women as a class, and this includes women I dislike and disagree with, and women who are complicit in the patriarchy for perceived or actual self-preservation. Andrea Dworkin wrote very compassionately about this in her book Right-Wing Women; good summary of her argument here.
posted by Catseye at 6:53 AM on February 28, 2018 [12 favorites]

It's hard to judge without knowing what that "fairly horrifying" world view is, but your question makes me like your friend more than you, even though I share your political views. She knows your beliefs and still reached out to you, so she clearly wants to continue the friendship. It also sounds like you brought up the new differences in your world view and that she "provided more information about her new world-view" only in response.

It seems that she likes you and respects your views and does not want to try to change them. If that's true, try to do the same for her.

If you want to avoid political discussions, let her know that in advance, but realize that she shouldn't feel constrained to hide important parts of her life for fear offending you. If a man mentions his husband to someone who opposes gay marriage, he's not trying to push an agenda, he's just talking about his life. Similarly, if your friend mentions an activity at her church, or an interaction with her husband in which she takes what you perceive as a subservient role, just listen; she already knows what you think about these topics.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:56 AM on February 28, 2018 [12 favorites]

I think it can work if you both respect each other and avoid topics that are too hot button. I used to be a Christian fundamentalist, and I'm still friends with some people from that time, even though they are still in that world. Over time (decades), they have actually become more liberal, so don't assume that what your friend believes today is completely the same as what she'll believe in five years.

There are, of course, things you will find completely unacceptable in a friend, but the way you describe her in your post I don't see anything that would be a dealbreaker for me. If you want to maintain the friendship, I think it's important to take her at her word when she describes her reasons for believing something. Both right and left people have cartoon versions of the other side - if you believe the cartoon version, you probably won't be able to be friends. For instance, people who are opposed to legal abortion rarely come to that point of view because they hate women and want to control them and don't care at all about whether a fetus is a human life, but that's a belief I see expressed on the left all the time. (So much so that I'm kind of nervous about posting that sentence here.) Just like people who favor legal abortion don't hate babies.

I think the world would be better if people from opposing sides would talk to and listen to each other more (just to be clear - I'm not talking about neo-Nazis, but people who are trying to be ethical but have come to conclusions that are completely different from yours).
posted by FencingGal at 7:11 AM on February 28, 2018 [9 favorites]

Remember she asked to visit with you. She knows your world view, you very clearly stated it to her & she still wants to catch up. Now unless she's got some crazed idea about converting you to her POV, I imagine she just wants to catch up. You know her better than us and you say she was a person with social skills, she theoretically won't lose those just because her political views have changed.

I'd meet up for a low investment meal like a coffee somewhere & see how it goes. Avoid any political discussion, let her see someone she knows is very liberal leaning as a person. This is not something to be underrated in the fight against hate. It's easy to hate "other" it's harder to hate it when it's an old friend you know & who is right in front of you asking about your kids baseball game. Neutral topics only, friends family, memories of fun things you did together. If things drift political or religious, a polite "We're having a nice time, I'd rather not talk about that thanks." should suffice to most reasonable adults, if she insists then you know where you stand & can always leave.

If you really want to fight hate & fear, you have to show love & courage in return & give her the chance. You don't have to engage if she tries to bait you with hot button issues, and you are fully allowed to just get up, say goodbye and leave at any point. You are not "selling out" your beliefs in anyway by catching up with an old friend.
posted by wwax at 7:33 AM on February 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Clearly something as happened to make her turn against the humanity in herself and in others. I would get a glass, a good bottle of wine, a chair, and I would grill her for hours about what she believes and how it came about so I could understand when and why she turned into such a wacko. You must be fascinated. How could you pass this opportunity up?!

OK. Just kidding.

I jest about everything except that something has caused her to turn away from the humanity in herself and in others.

If you can be kind and not pick on the subject, see her.
posted by jbenben at 7:51 AM on February 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

You have a 15 year friendship with this person that is presumably based on things other than a shared political identity; surely there is still common ground between the two of you? If Palestinians & Israelis can maintain friendships, the two of you can as well, if you choose to do so.

If discussing politics or religion makes you uncomfortable, a friend worth keeping around will understand if you simply say, "I'd love to hang out this summer, but I'd prefer not to talk about political or religious topics. I feel pretty intensely about them, and don't want these issues to come between us or affect our friendship."

And, if either of you make a casual comment, give each other a little grace. Neither of you may be intending to hurt the other or spark discussion. There's a middle ground between silent resentment and vigorous debate. You can simply say, aloud or to yourself, that your experience has led you to different conclusions and you disagree with her on this issue, but also that you respect the fact that her experiences and conclusions are her own as well. If you can't say that and mean it, then the issue isn't just about your friend's life choices. The same holds true for her.

Tribalism is a real thing. So is cognitive dissonance. There are billions of people on this planet, each of whom has an identity that differs from our own in macro & micro ways. Accepting that others can look at the exact same set of circumstances and come to different conclusions is part & parcel of being an good Earth citizen. What use is tolerance if we only extend it to people who think and feel exactly like us?
posted by muirne81 at 7:57 AM on February 28, 2018 [9 favorites]

(Disclosure: I have dumped many a friend and disowned family whose core beliefs, including politics, are not compatible with mine. I am trans and the GOP is so vehemently focused on erasing my existence, that I have zero desire to allow anyone who is a republican to become an intimate part of my life.

There is no foundation for friendship when someone is part of a group that is actively seeking to erase my humanity. I have made the mistake before of conflating the cognitive dissonance of coexistence with an obligation to be friends. Being friendly towards vs friends with. Really important distinctions. Exploring the role of friendship in my life really helped me cut out a lot of toxicity and further nourish the friendships I held on to.)

I think you have to ask yourself, what does friendship look like to you with this woman? Do you run into her often at shared social events? Is she someone to hang out with, just the two of you, for an hour or to? Spend the entire weekend with? Depend on if times get tough? Be someone to share life's joys with?

You're already stressing out, so a bigger question is most likely: What do you have to gain pursuing a friendship that will probably have you walking more and more on eggshells the deeper you go? Her views already horrify you now. How much worse will they get, the closer you intwine yourself with her?

As mentioned up-thread, you need to set some red flags / boundaries. There's this notion that we're obligated to hold on to friends, even when they're toxic. That we should be the "better person," or try to "save" them because fight hate with love something something. Do you really see friendship in this woman, or is she a someone you wish to redeem? Love may be infinite, but your time and energy are not, so think very long and hard if this is the true reason you want to get back with her. Regardless of the reason, if you do pursue a friendship with this woman and it goes sour, you do not need to feel compelled to hang on to her.
posted by Wossname at 7:58 AM on February 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

You know, I initially thought that this was an ultra-right troll question, designed to fit the narriative that liberals are intolerant; until I read the answers and saw how many people support your simply tossing someone out of your life who hasn't harmed you or made any attempt to push her views on you.

If you were friends with this person for so long I would expect that you consider her to be roughly equal to you in intelligence and empathy. If two equally intelligent and empathetic people can come to radically different conclusions about a given topic, there is at least a possibility that the topic is nuanced enough to allow for different views rather than that your friend has suddenly become an evil villain.

It doesn't seem like you have much interest in understanding why your friend's beliefs changed, but in whether or not they are still worthy of you because they have become different. It seems that you haven't even spent enough time with her to know if she has become unpleasant to be around.

Personally, when I became a Christian and told my very anti-religious loved one, the thing that hurt the most wasn't the vicious and wholesale rejection, but that they didn't care enough about me to try to understand or to even ask about it.

I hate to break it to you but plenty of women believe that feminism, as they understand it, has done them more harm than good, or that leftists abuse their demographic to win political points.

I'm a woman and a POC, and you'd probably call me right wing because of some of my views and Joe Republican would call me left because of others. Do my views about what it means to be a low-income woman of colour mean I am a lesser or evil person when they don't fit the mold formed and advanced by wealthy white liberals?

I think our lives are richer and we learn more and become better people when we at least make an effort to give people a chance. Echo chambers are toxic. I'm not saying keep her around if she constantly says and does things you find horrifying and offensive. I'm saying give her a chance.
posted by windykites at 8:02 AM on February 28, 2018 [44 favorites]

You are not obligated to stay friends with someone who denies the humanity of others. Who you are friends with is part of the definition of who you are as a person and what your values are.

You get to do what you want as long as you're okay with the consequences. I think you should decide in advance where the line is, though, of how much you will implicitly endorse. Like, is it okay if she wants other humans rounded up and detained for the color of their skin or religion as long as you don't personally witness her saying it out loud, or it's okay if she says it out loud but not directly to you? At what point will this person stop being an improvement in your life?
posted by Lyn Never at 8:05 AM on February 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

I have a former colleague and longtime friend who is in the social media echo chamber on politics's text was that he's going to spend money on gun training, "exercising his rights while he still can." Given that the house, senate and presidency are all Republican and we haven't had any gun control legislation in 25 years, it seems to me that critical thinkers might realize that isn't really a driving reason. He's an adjunct teacher at a community college. We disagreed a lot during the election. I really don't like his politics, but I've tried to stay in touch, because I at least want to try to understand the perspective. I don't see him often, and sometimes I do have to take a break when topics get heated, but the reality is yes we still have other things in common, and I try to focus on them. Shunning people who disagree with you just isn't my style, tempting though it is. You might see less of your friend, or do more things where there are fewer opportunities for discussion. But I'd at least try it. If it's a disaster, you can opt out later.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 8:10 AM on February 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I sometimes feel like people who have never really considered cutting someone out of their life for principled reasons, but always clung to the "we can still be friends despite our political differences!" model, before the election now don't quite know how to go about evaluating when and how to do it. It's just so foreign to their prior way of thinking and yet now seems so necessary that they can end up sort of lunging into it. Even in this world where Trump has made crystal-clear the vile motives and lack of good faith behind many conservative positions, not every conservative belief, not even the ones you find personally distasteful, has to be grounds to breaking off relations. Consider carefully in advance what is unacceptable to you. You should be able to draw lines based on your own ethics. Likely factors include harm to others vs. harm to self, close association of a particular position with historical or present-day violence, the recognition or lack thereof of others' fundamental humanity, rigid rejection of a functional model of evaluating reality (this one is more of a proxy than necessarily evil in itself, but, e.g., it's not really possible to believe in "crisis actors" without imbibing some horrific stuff along with it) and general extremity of the position, but you really must decide for yourself. If she expresses a belief you find abhorrent, then, yes, end the contact. Tell her why, politely, briefly, but don't argue about it, just do it. If, on the other hand, she does not cross that line, then there is some value to engagement, but you need to keep an eye on whether she's getting more radical. People who make these abrupt changes later in life tend to be VERY zealous.

And, yes, to echo what someone else said above, don't just assume that she's reaching out to you as a sign of open-mindedness. You'd have to be really naive not to recognize the possibility of formal proselytization in this context. By which I don't mean merely happening to express her views in conversation (which obviously you might do, too!), but being committed to changing your views by dragging you into a different social context that will pressure you. Don't go to church events with her.
posted by praemunire at 8:25 AM on February 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

I have a hard time remaining friends with people who have shifted so far in this direction. I bear them no ill will, but I don't want to spend my precious time with them. Do you see yourself being friends with her going forward? If yes, there's no harm in meeting. If no, don't waste your time or hers and just fade.
posted by Knowyournuts at 8:46 AM on February 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

You have a choice here and there's no right answer. For me personally, the answer would probably be no, or at the very least I would probably significantly dial back my interactions with them, but it sounds like it's something you at least want to try.

I would say you need a no-politics, no-religion rule for your vacation. She needs to agree to that before the vacation starts, but even so, you might have to enforce it repeatedly. Or maybe not! Maybe she knows that your views are also really different from hers, and a conversation about them wouldn't be productive or fun. But you have to ask yourself if you feel up to the task of enforcing this boundary. If she does start talking to you about a topic you're uncomfortable with, are you comfortable standing your ground, even to the point of leaving the room if you need to? If your answer is yes then I think you have a path forward.
posted by capricorn at 9:24 AM on February 28, 2018

provided more information about her new world-view, which is fairly horrifying from my liberal perspective.

Some of the answer is really going to depend on the details of this world-view and how you feel about it. "Horrifying" is a pretty strong word. When you see her, will you feel true horror that she actually believes X, Y, and Z? Or will you take pleasure in seeing an old friend, even despite the fact that you don't see eye-to-eye on everything?

I don't think either feeling is "right" or "wrong" - it's just a feeling. But you probably need to search your heart for what your response is likely to be.

What I dread is a scenario where my friend tosses out a casual remark that reflects her new view of reality, and I either feel honour-bound to challenge her assumptions, which could get ill-tempered fairly quickly, or else I bite my tongue and inwardly seethe, which is not conducive to actually having fun.

Would you feel comfortable saying something like "well, as you know I don't really agree about that, but let's talk about something more pleasant. How's old Aunt Martha doing?" Presumably neither one of you wants to blow up your friendship on some kind of scorched-earth argument based on your now-divergent worldviews: her, because she reached out to you; you, because you care enough to have asked us this question.
posted by theorique at 9:27 AM on February 28, 2018

This internet stranger things you should see her.

First of all, I don't see why enjoyable social interaction is impossible without reference to politics. I have had many enjoyable social interactions with people who disagree with me politically in which politics does not come up. Do you have any reason at all to think she is going to bring up politics? And why do you need to bring up politics? There are plenty of other things to talk about.

Secondly, "feminism" and "liberalism" are VERY vague words. They mean different things to different people. How horrifying is "horrifying?" Is she anti-abortion and somewhat critical of #MeToo? Or does she think women should never work outside the home, and jump to blame victims of sexual harassment? I know this is not a very popular opinion on this site, but I think there is a big, big difference between these viewpoints.

Finally, if she really has become an insufferable, intolerant jerk and can't shut up about it, you don't have to see her again. I don't see the harm in giving it a try.

Call me an old-fashioned liberal (because in some ways that's what I am) but I think it's worth engaging with people that you disagree with, even if you find their politics abhorrent - provided they are willing to not be assholes about it. That last condition is increasingly rare these days, and it's a damn shame.

And really, it sounds to me like you could just avoid talking politics altogether, at least for now. Which is a totally fine and normal and OK thing to do.
posted by breakin' the law at 9:55 AM on February 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

I lost a friend of 15 years for similar reasons this past year. He was socially liberal when we first started speaking, but gradually flushed himself down a 4chan-y, alt-right hole and I couldn’t take it.

We were formerly very tight, spending hours on the phone together talking about everything under the sun, emotionally supporting one another through all kinds of terrible times, and mutually counted each other among our closest friends. Our opinions were never in lockstep, and we often clashed over gender politics, among many issues, but for many years, our debates were mostly fun and respectful. I think we both valued the different points of view we both brought to the table.

Over the past couple of years, though, my warmhearted, highly intelligent, hilarious, emotionally open friend started espousing views I found repugnant. (Xenophobic, homophobic transphobic, racist, sexist, Islamaphobic.) His circumstances were somewhat different from your friend’s. There was no religious component to his transformation. Instead, I think it was an infusion of MRA, alt-right and white-supremacist propaganda circulating through his other online social circles that got him. Meanwhile, some cracks in our friendship were also forming for seemingly unrelated reasons – he had always been somewhat self-absorbed, and I had always been excessively critical (Something it took my friendship with him to really recognize about myself and commit to improving.) We were usually able to have candid conversations about how these traits manifested, and I thought our friendship had been pretty healthy overall. But when I pushed back on the ugly stuff, I think the tension pressed on existing fault lines. I’m pretty sure he took it as part of a pattern in our relationship in which I found him in the wrong and he felt put on the defensive. And to be fair to him, there had been times when I took him to task for things that were truly none of my business. At the same time, I felt like he was putting his own feelings and perspective as a white, straight, financially comfortable cis dude before mine and everyone not like him to a gross degree, and I was right to call him out on it.

Part of the reason why this was so hard is that I didn’t handle any of this in a consistent way. I didn’t feel capable of it. Hearing him say something I found awful would make me feel angry and upset and I was no good at hiding it. Many, many times, I would deflect conversations by saying I didn’t want to discuss something or I didn’t agree but wanted to change the topic. He would acquiesce, but express that he found it frustrating when I did that because he enjoyed the intellectual exercise and felt like I was shutting him out. I also let a LOT go without comment (although I don’t think he realized this.) I would ask for and listen to his point of view without judging until either I couldn’t stand it or he wanted to move on. Sometimes I would engage, and we would have long, heated arguments. I would often find myself enraged, whether the topic was something I care about but don’t have a large personal stake in, such as transgender rights, or things that affect people I am close to, such as Islamophobia and homophobia. He didn’t seem to understand why I couldn’t have a dispassionate conversation about this stuff and I couldn’t make him see why it bothered me so deeply. He was hurt that he was finding himself rebuffed so often and that every conversation. He told me he felt like he was walking on eggshells with me.

Throughout all of this, I was questioning whether I wanted to maintain any kind of relationship with him. I didn’t think our friendship was doing any of us any favors at this point. I felt like I still loved him for the sweet, kind person I felt like he was at his core, but I didn’t like him anymore, and this dissonance made me feel stiff and insincere when we talked about non-political topics. What made me hang in there was a combination of valuing our former friendship, a conviction that he could be brought round if I could just said the magic words in the right combinations, and a sense of duty that as a cis white lady, part of the demographic that lost us the election, it was my responsibility to do the hard work of educating fellow privileged friends and family. I was heartened that he didn’t vote for Trump. He was in a mostly red but sometimes swing-y state, and in the aftermath of the election I felt like it was super important to get him on the same page about the health care bills, etc.

I started an email exchange, proposing we each share a link to something and discuss it. I was still clinging to the hope that I could change some of his more toxic views, (or bring him around on more general political stuff and work my way in from there) and thought I could express myself more persuasively in writing. It felt like, and was, a last-ditch effort into saving our friendship, since I felt like I couldn’t handle staying friends with someone who didn’t believe in the essential equality of my friends and loved ones. This is where our phone conversations pretty much trailed off, and since we live in different states and I’m not on social media, these emails became our primary means of communication. I poured hours into selecting articles or essays I thought would appeal to him and writing carefully considered, nuanced messages to accompany them. When he sent freewheeling, often irrelevant responses and links from garbage sources like Prager U and random Youtube hate groups, I would write thoughtful responses debunking the blatant lies and trying to find empathy with the core fears I thought were behind his selections. I pointed to common ground wherever I could find it.

I tried. I tried so hard and never got the sense that his mind budged an inch. Eventually he stopped responding.

The last straw for me came when I googled an old handle I knew he used to go by. (I know, I know. Believe me, I got my just desserts for this kind of snooping) I found he belonged to and posted prolifically on a 4chan-y type forum for white-supremacist trolls. And surprise to me, he was posting anti-Semitic stuff. I’m Jewish. Antisemitism was something he had never presented to me in any way. He didn’t know a lot of Jews personally, but had a Jewish therapist as a kid who he claimed saved his life, and had in the past expressed a ton of respect for Jewish writers and comedians. And he knew me. He had met my family. We had inside jokes about my Jewishness that I enjoyed because I thought it was coming from a place of, for lack of a better word, wokeness about Jews on his part. I had actually been using antisemitism as a jumping off point to make arguments about the perniciousness of Islamophobia because I thought that hatred of Jews was the one ugly belief he hadn’t latched on to. Lesson learned. I sent him a final email letting him know I was breaking off contact for good, but if he ever emerged from the toxic pool he was swimming in, he was welcome to get in touch. I’m not holding my breath.

The whole situation broke my heart. I often feel like someone smarter, more eloquent, and more sympathetic could have gotten through to him where I couldn’t have. Depending on my state of mind, I feel like I should have cut him off far sooner or held on and not tried to change him in any way. But then I think about him happily spewing up garbage with his troll buddies and I just feel sick and sad, and wish I had ended it years ago.

It’s a weird puzzle. On his end, I think what upset him was less that I didn’t agree with him about things – he was far less invested in persuading me about his views than I was in trying to talk him out of his – and more about my unwillingness to talk about whatever it was that interested him most, often things I considered totally minor. In the past year, during one of our conversations about racism, he expressed that one of the biggest things bothering him about the state of our friendship was that I stopped watching Game of Thrones, (due to my disgust over Tyrian fridge-ing Shae,) and being a huge fan, he really wanted to talk about the show with me. This was months after I dropped the show and for me, it registered on about a 1.5 out of 10 about stuff I cared about compared to the 11 that I cared about whether he thought black people brought police violence on themselves.

As for your ability to maintain a relationship with your friend, I think there are no end of factors influencing whether you will succeeed. Why did she get back in touch? What are her actual beliefs now and how much do they push against the people and ideals you care about? How thick-skinned are you? How well can you compartmentalize? What do you value about your friendship with her? How well does that overlap with what she is looking for and the kind of person she is now?

Whatever the answers are, you don’t owe it to anyone to take a particular course. The idea that it was my responsibility and theoretically in my power to work on the racist-uncle type in my life obviously did not work out well for me. I’m not saying it’s always wrong or impossible but I would seriously warn against engaging for that reason. But if you are hoping to a renew a close friendship, or even hope to just get back in touch to drink mimosas on the porch, please look out for yourself, especially if you happen to be from a marginalized group that this person may no longer tolerate. It really hurts to discover that someone you allowed to see at your most vulnerable moments, someone you comforted and comforted you, someone you shared innumerable laughs with, hates something about you that is central to your identity.
posted by prewar lemonade at 10:09 AM on February 28, 2018 [26 favorites]

Many thanks for all these answers. They opened my mind a bit.

I'm going to give the friendship a chance and see what happens. Yes, I'm curious about what prompted her change of heart, so I'll ask about that if the right moment presents itself.
posted by Grunyon at 10:15 AM on February 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

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