Hello from the Other Side

Something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: How should we behave toward people on the other side of political divides? Was Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia’s friendship praiseworthy? Or is such a relationship morally compromising when you understand your friend’s ideology to do some damage to the vulnerable? I’d break the larger questions here into three parts. Is it always, sometimes, or never…

Both of the major camps frame many of their positions as a defense of the vulnerable: if you’re for women’s choice, you understand yourself to defend the health and rights of women. If you’re anti-abortion, you understand yourself to defend nascent lives. The premises of each position tend to drive their adherents into self-rendered bubbles, if we can’t speak in friendship with folks from the other side.

Some social clustering of like-minded people is natural and inevitable. I’m not going to share a relaxed meal with Trump or Cruz, and I think it’s probably morally fraught to do so–it would tacitly condone the cultivators of ideologies so toxic that they pose a real danger to health, safety, and our system of social organization. But if everyone actively selects away from anyone who believes contrarily on issues of consequence, then we get a kind of interpersonal isolationism that precludes or at least discourages good-faith dialogue closer to the middle spaces, in the ideological demilitarized zone. And good-faith dialogue is hard enough as it is.

Everything above suggests that it’s sometimes permissible and sometimes praiseworthy to be friends with the other side. Is it ever obligatory? It’s hard for me to imagine what an obligatory friendship looks like. Friendship seems inherently elective, so the idea is probably nonsense.

The previous questions seem easy enough in the abstract, but I’m speaking from a position of significant privilege. If I’m questioning whether I should be friends with someone who holds a marginalizing position, I might be pained by the position, but I’m rarely if ever its object. It would seem like a hardhearted and patronizing thing to tell someone who suffers that it would be best for them to welcome friendships with those who make them suffer.

Still, it would be unfair to dismiss Ginsberg and Scalia’s relationship as something only possible between privileged elites. Ginsberg contended directly with her friend’s marginalizing work:

Had Scalia been a justice when Ginsburg was arguing women’s rights cases before the court throughout the 1970s, he certainly would have have voted against her. He wrote the solo dissent to her majority in U.S. v. Virginia, the opinion that ended women’s exclusion from the Virginia Military Institute, and formed the capstone of her lifelong fight for gender equality. “This is not the interpretation of a Constitution,” Scalia complained, “but the creation of one.” Scalia bitterly opposed the Supreme Court’s gradual recognition of rights for gays and lesbians; Ginsburg was the first justice to preside over a same-sex marriage. Scalia referred to the Voting Rights Act, the law protecting ballot access for the historically disenfranchised, as one of several “racial entitlements” that Congress would be hard-pressed to end; Ginsburg ferociously dissented when the court gutted it.

How do we know when it’s permissible or praiseworthy to pursue friendships? I doubt there’s a reliable formula, but I wonder if it might be useful to use John Rawls’ original position exercise on a smaller scale.

Imagine seven diverse socioeconomic and political identities. Posit that these seven lives may intersect consistently. You and six others will have to live out existence as one of these seven folks, but you don’t know which one. If you had to determine in what way the seven identities should interact before assuming that identity, before living that life, I think you’d err toward friendship. I only have a shallow understanding of Rawls’ actual formulation, which is supposed to form the basis of a fairness-centered conception of justice, but it may basically rely on individuals’ capacities for friendly disagreement. Coexistence between folks with different fundamental ethical premises – coexistence in a plural society – depends on humility. It requires that we act in good faith with our beliefs, but that we do so with an understanding that there is some provisionality to our knowledge.

Maybe the line is where someone’s behavior and beliefs make reasonable disagreement and empathetic exchange genuinely impossible. In the Rawlsian experiment, I think I’d always prefer relationships based on empathy. If someone conducts or fosters violence, if someone actually, actively precludes the mutuality of empathy in relationships, maybe it’s not a good idea to hang out with them.

But friendship isn’t schematic, and while we hope for a reciprocity of empathy in our relationships, we don’t treat empathy as a currency that demands equivalence in exchange. There are people we shouldn’t condone through friendship, but those cases of impermissible friendship are probably rare. We can relate to people with grace and curiosity because they make us laugh or have interesting thoughts or share our loves. We can relate to the sum of a person who isn’t reducible to their positions, and all of that is a good.