A few weeks ago, I found myself doing something I swore I’d never do again: get into a heated political debate with a staunch Republican friend. This wasn’t a borderline friend whom I barely knew. This was a longtime close buddy who I genuinely love.
We generally try not to go there, yet there we were, furiously texting each other with points and counterpoints, which we each felt were brilliant and irrefutable. Of course, neither of us was getting anywhere with the other guy.
Finally, he sent me the following text:
“Call this question the ‘sanity and being in touch with reality’ litmus test - do you think we’re better off under Biden than Trump?”
I gave him my unequivocal answer. Absolutely! I guess that meant I failed his litmus test and thus was neither sane nor “in touch with reality.” Ouch.
So I instantly shot back with four “litmus tests” of my own:
Do you think the election was fair?
Do you believe January 6th was an attempted insurrection?
Did Trump so mishandled the pandemic that it caused the virus to spread and people to die?
Do you think Trump was one of the worst presidents ever?
His response was quick and succinct:
Too soon to tell.
Ah ha! I smugly thought. I had cleverly backed him into a corner and he couldn’t squirm out of answering me. Successful cross-examination. No further questions, Your Honor.
But then came an empty feeling. What did I really just accomplish? This isn’t a courtroom; I was not scoring points with a jury. All I really did was confirm what I already knew — that he and I are on different ends of the political spectrum. And my fondness for him didn’t suffer in the slightest. He and I have been through decades of life together — kids, grandkids, business, parties, lots and lots of laughs, some really sad times — and none of that really changed a bit in the course of that heated text exchange.
So what was the point of our silly litmus testing?
We all know of situations where there are deep divides among family or friends. I have a friend who’s not talking to his sister anymore over ideological differences. I know of at least one family — my family — where certain people are no longer invited to family gatherings because they refuse to get vaccinated.
We create our own litmus tests all the time, whether we realize it or not. We oversimplify issues and treat them as if they are binary — right or wrong, black or white — and then we form sweeping judgments about people based on their responses.
Are you pro-choice?
Are you an anti-vaxxer?
Do you support Israel?
Do you believe in global warming?
But asking the questions is the easy part. The hard part — and a critical question in these troubled times — is deciding what to do once we get our answer. Ostracize the person from our lives? Work on trying to change their minds? Just avoid contentious topics with them altogether in the future?
But each of these options is flawed.
Losing valuable relationships over political differences is depressing. Changing someone’s mind can seem next to impossible. The most common option, it seems, is to avoid talking about important issues with people who are important to us. That may make for calmer social gatherings but does nothing to repair the deep rifts that exist among us. The elephants are still in the room.
We’re stuck. And so we retreat to our respective corners, sharing articles and emails with like-minded people, which only further deepens our divides. Add to this the insults and name calling and it’s easy to see how digging ourselves out of these irreconcilable holes seems unlikely.
I have no solutions, and offer none here. But I do know what’s not the solution. Losing friends and destroying family relationships over politics is not the solution. Name calling, insults and litmus tests are not the solution. Anything that contributes to the divide is not the solution.
We are a polarized and fractured nation, and will remain so until we can find a way to coexist in a healthy, respectful and effective way. I don’t know if that’s possible, and it’s probably hopelessly naive to think that it is. But I — and all of us — can at least make a personal commitment to not be part of the problem.
Others can (and surely will) misbehave with divisive rhetoric and actions. But I can’t control them. I can only make a personal pledge to not engage in ugly discourse, and to call out anyone who does in my presence. And I can do a better job listening, learning and being more open to re-examining old views that perhaps I dismissed too quickly years ago, just as I hope others would do.
That doesn’t mean not repressing my outrage at senseless blather or refraining from political debates or giving up on creating policy changes. It just means doing so in civil and productive ways. I can do that. And I can encourage others to do the same. We all can. And if that’s just a futile exercise or silly naïveté, so be it.
I just know the moment is upon us to do better. This isn’t someone else’s problem to solve. Each one of us owns this one.
And the time to fix it is now.