When the Politics of Friends and Family Just Shocks You

How to deal with the cognitive dissonance and have the talk

Posted Sep 29, 2020

When Will MacAvoy, in HBO’s Newsroom, was asked why America is the greatest country, he tried to ignore the question, but when pressed, he gave a riveting answer: America was not. He rattled off underperformance in literacy, math/science, life expectancy, and infant mortality.1

 Loriann Oberlin, MS
While the first debate seemed like a dumpster fire, our debates with others have gone on for years.
Source: Loriann Oberlin, MS

His soliloquy around the 2012 presidential election could easily happen today. Have you heard such from your closest circle? Some people sidestep hard topics. Others look in disbelief when respected friends back candidates and positions that intersect with cruelty, moral bankruptcy, and mistruths.

I know you consider us friends, but I’m confused how you can back those who can’t say ‘black lives matter?’ I worry what life could bring for me, my family with the racial divide, the violence we see. Is loyalty to party greater than speaking out and supporting friends?

No doubt the electorate has expanded its polarity. This question makes us think of cognitive dissonance, which means having incongruent thoughts, attitudes, beliefs or behaviors that conflict in one's mind. Hesitancy, squirming and decisions result. In Overcoming Passive Aggression, a book about hidden anger, I made sure to discuss mixed messages, which in an election year, drive others crazy with the disparity between what’s been said, who they back or what's supported politically.

Many this year are gobsmacked. In prior elections, we’ve accepted that candidates had different views, yet never doubted love of country or commitment to the responsibilities of the job sought or held. In Too Much and Never Enough, Mary Trump, Ph.D., talked of a closed family system where differentiating oneself met with punishment.3 It begs the question of whether lifelong party affiliation undermines individual autonomy. The Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump have been noticeably more active providing those with cognitive dissonance another path.

Your family stands for religious principles and helping the disadvantaged or disabled. Yet you support a candidate who committed adultery, demeaned women, mocked a disabled reporter, and ripped children from parents fleeing for a better life. I don't get it.

 L. Oberlin/Pixabay
Those who work in mental health shudder at the poor behavior modeled in recent years.
Source: L. Oberlin/Pixabay

Charismatic leaders in religion and politics are nothing new. How easily our friends, whom we believe are educated and well-informed, get caught in a media bubble still baffles. "Illegitimate news," they’ll say, turning on the messengers. “But what about your candidate …” they’ll defend and deflect.

Some Trump supporters in 2016 cast votes for change. They’ve likely seen it causing them to double down or acknowledge that it wasn't exactly what they had in mind. In any disagreement allow the other to save face.

Before or after an election, focus on activities that bond you as family and friends, away from the headlines. If you get mired there, acknowledge that change was a reasonable concept to yearn for, and give a little ground. Phrase sentences with “I messages,” steer clear of shaming or guilting, and opt for The Golden Rule.

Why do you support a candidate who backs so many social programs? I worked hard for my money, pay my fair share of taxes and don’t want it just given away.

First a tweak because why questions and “you…” statements put people on the defensive. Try instead “how do you feel about,” “what brought you to back,” “help me to understand…” or “would you agree that…” as you find common ground to tread upon.

Also, steer clear of these igniters: gaslighting (words like “radical” or “fake”), contempt (name calling tops that list), and innuendo (suggesting nefarious or stereotypical behavior).

To any topic at hand, think twice before judging people too harshly for their positions. Everyone has a story, and theirs may include a greater tendency toward social justice, advocacy, charity, and rehabilitation. You and your friend/family member might both be correct but divergent in your playbook of how to navigate life.

Oakley/L Oberlin/Shutterstock
Decision making is easier when you know and feel confident in yourself and your values, not afraid to go against the grain.
Source: Oakley/L Oberlin/Shutterstock

Decision making can be highly personal, sometimes private. One never knows what path people have traveled, filled with traumas, tragedies or other hardships. Wonder to yourself: What happened in this person’s life to bring him or her to such a position? This thought shift might take the edge off of an intense argument, yet when you find yourself embroiled, ask "would you care to hear how this impacts my life?" 

Differences over solving health care, caring for our planet, and navigating this pandemic, won’t disrupt my friendships. Human rights, abuses of power, gender equality, and respect for fellow citizens have morality at the core. Should I alert others where I draw the line?

Thomas Jefferson said, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as a cause for withdrawing from a friend.”  

In a world where coworkers cast judgment, relatives choose disinformation, and people catch spouses talking back to TV news, would Jefferson de-friend his detractors on Facebook or Instagram?

Since our country was built on forging alliances to accomplish the common good, it’s doubtful Jefferson would alter his stance. When you make the choice to cut off others and end all communication, you cease the ability to influence, inform, learn, and grow.

Becoming the change you want to see in the world doesn’t happen in isolation. Heaven knows this year we’ve had enough of that to span lifetimes.

Copyright @ 2020 by Loriann Oberlin. All rights reserved.

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