About a month ago, I happened to run into the mother of an old friend while I was out and about. The encounter should have been a simple exchange of small talk, amicable with an allowable amount of awkwardness; instead, I was ambushed by a flurry of political complaints wholly inappropriate for a chance meeting of acquaintances.
As I initially approached Mrs. X and prepared to say hello, I readied myself to enter the ritual dance of exchanging pleasantries, at the same time on high alert for a chance to extricate myself from the conversation at the earliest convenience allowed by our laws of social interaction. However, before I could even proffer a meager “How are you?” Mrs. X seized the initiative and launched a volley of invectives.
She offhandedly ranted about Governor Whitmer’s “draconian” orders, complained of the violation of her First Amendment rights, and even asserted that we should be afraid state troopers would knock down the doors of citizens’ homes to break up family gatherings at Thanksgiving. It was like I had stepped into the minefield of a real-life Facebook thread. At each pause, I offered neutral responses aimed to defuse the tension: “I hope we get through this soon,” “It’s hard but we’ve all got to sacrifice this year,” and, “Hmm, I highly doubt police will be entering homes.” The furious fulminations of Mrs. X left me angry and frustrated, but I maintained my composure and we parted ways with a short smile.
I was taken aback not by the substance of her rant—it was all the stereotypical right-wing talking points one would expect—but in the manner she so cavalierly spouted her convictions at me, someone whom she had not seen in many years and has no personal relationship with. Did it not cross her mind that I could very well be part of the majority of Michiganders who approve of the governor, that I might have lost someone from COVID-19, or that I might have multiple at-risk family members (which I do) and thus need to be more careful than most?
Reflecting on that conversation over the last few weeks, I keep coming back to insularity as its root cause. Allow me to assume that in her ultra-conservative evangelical bubble, Mrs. X always interacts with like-minded people who think the same way, creating a cycle of reinforced thought which pandemic lockdowns have only exacerbated. Anyone she comes into contact with must think like she does, the logic goes, and so perhaps this makes her feel free to wheel and deal with her opinions, expecting them to be accepted comfortably by her interlocutors. As an extension of her son, I am also viewed as one of her safe contacts.
Narrow-mindedness, group-think, and the desire to wall oneself off from outsiders is not solely a conservative issue, but a bipartisan problem and part of the human condition. Anger and polarization are the norm these days, compounded by our culture of instant gratification and an unhealthy compulsion to broadcast our outrage in social media circles, as if doing so is anything other than an attempt to validate our own egos and gain affirmation from others who already agree with us. How instead might we engage in real dialogue and relationship building?
I am not claiming that politics should not play a role in our daily lives and relationships. This year I have actually had more fruitful conversations with friends and family than ever before about politics, race, and religion. However, there is a time for harmless small talk and there is a time to get political. My encounter with Mrs. X certainly should have been an instance of the former. When we do meld together politics and friendship, it should come from a place of relationship, one that does not make assumptions but rather incorporates charity and growth.