Civility With ‘Enemies’ – Can It Be Done?

01/07/2019

I have not written anywhere near as much in the month of June as I would have liked. To put that in perspective, I missed a week’s worth of pieces (7) due to university, visiting friends, other commitments, and whatever other excuse I can convince myself of. While I am not displeased with the pieces I have written, it leaves much to catch up on. But I can draw from those other activities, starting with a friend’s party.

It was a close friend’s 21st birthday recently and suffice to say that their family is not the most pleasant when it comes to political opinions. I have spoken before about a few of these cases, such as the one who voted One Nation first then the Greens second simply because they liked the Greens’ candidate’s name, or the one who had a severe dislike towards the Union movement and a love of former QLD Premier, Joh Bjerke-Petersen. Another, who I’ve met a couple of times now, is a massive Trump supporter.

But other than a comment shouted from another room saying, ‘anyone who voted Greens, get out of the house’ (to which another friend tried to spark a reaction by saying, rather loudly, ‘oh, didn’t you vote Greens?’) it went without a hitch. Granted, we did not interact all that much throughout the evening, and politics was deftly avoided in conversation through awkward laughter and sidestepped questioning, but things were civil.

Is that not what we should strive for? It is a tough question, and one which even I cannot maintain a position on without a tinge of hypocrisy. I have no love for the politics or opinions of those who voted for the Coalition in the election, but that does not mean I cannot have conversations with, or even befriend, those people. But the holes in my view here are obvious. For one, I am a straight, white male – would I be as comfortable fostering civil relations with these people if I were a religious (the ‘wrong’ one, of course) woman of colour?

As much as I’d like to think I would, perhaps not. When the opinions on certain topics do not affect me personally, does it reflect badly on me to simply set them aside? I most certainly would challenge them if the issue in question came up in conversation, and would not hold back on expressing my concerns. But I can choose to do this from the comfort of being on ‘equal’ footing with them in their eyes, and (importantly) without a direct stake in the debate. Also, any breakdown in discourse would be from their inability to continue – I have had a few people walk away from a rational conversation before simply because my disagreements made them nervous or angry.

So that is the first problem: being able to discuss issues of oppression without having been part of an oppressed demographic myself. That’s not to say I am not able to take part in those discussions, but that I go into them with a ‘civil’ perspective that others may not be at ease with. Is this making sense so far? This is much more a reflective and introspective piece than one actually arriving at answers or conclusions.

The second problem is that, while I try to uphold civility with anyone, no matter their political persuasion, I find myself silently calling out others for doing so. As always, US politics offers the best examples, in this case Joe Biden. Are his relationships with segregationists of the past worthy of condemnation? Given his record (mostly, from what I’ve read, on bussing), it could be argued they are contemptible. But aside from that, is being ‘friends’ with such people inherently bad?

I can personally say that I would not be friends with such people, nor would I consider myself a ‘friend’ of my actual friend’s relatives. That being said, how could cordiality be considered bad? I have no love for Biden, a corporate hack with a sketchy record that the upcoming US campaign will undoubtedly tear him to shreds for. But I hesitantly hold back judgement when it comes to friendly relations with political enemies.

My convictions are too strong to succumb to the whole ‘middle-ground concession’ thing (for example, no, I will not accept a slow or delayed transition to renewables, stop subsidising fossil fuels and bankroll the clean energy and energy storage markets please). But that does not mean I will not sit with coal addicts – Scott Morrison’s stunt with that lump of coal in Parliament comes to mind – and try to uphold a reasonable debate.

The same stands with any other issue, such as the civil rights battle in the US. I can criticise Biden’s record, and the stance of his ‘friends’ on the other side, as much as I please, but I will commend any effort to try and bridge divides, or at least make them tenable for change. I will, for good or ill, try to keep civility in all interactions I have, even if it is with someone whose political views I despise.

I cannot, however, judge those who do not wish to follow that maxim. As commendable as it would be in theory if they did, I would not blame an LGBT person for refusing to talk to someone who believes they should not exist. I would not blame a Muslim refugee for harbouring resentment towards those who support the offshore detention centres designed to keep people trapped and stripped of their rights.

This is a question I have no answer to because it is one we must all answer for ourselves. I am, as my experiences have shown, willing to converse with anyone about anything, so long as they are content to do so with equal respect. In my mind, calling someone an ‘enemy’ and refusing discourse with them only serves to exacerbate the divide. By opening communications, you open a range of possibilities to move forward in a positive manner. Nothing is lost by acting with courtesy and respect, and the potential gain is invaluable.

 

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