‘Silence is complicity’, they say. But what do you do when speaking up could irreparably damage the relationships you value most?
It was the Facebook post that did it. I normally don’t go there, at least on that social media platform. I go on Facebook for fun, and to keep connections warm. Going political sours all of that and, frankly, activates algorithms I don’t want to be included in. Beyond the desire not to be politically manipulated in that way, scientific studies suggest you can’t effectively influence opinion by challenging deeply held political beliefs, even when you can provide clear contradictory evidence.
So why stir things up if it won’t actually accomplish anything? I don’t get a thrill out of conflict like some seem to.
That said, there is an election coming up in the US, my homeland, and even before the recent protests reached a crescendo I was starting to hear a drumbeat that seemed to sync with the beating of my heart: silence is complicity.
And so I did it. I spoke up. I chose a Washington Post article that compared data about the spread of the coronavirus with statements by President Trump (particularly interesting in light of his recent diagnosis). In my Facebook post I asked, politely, “Please don’t vote for this man.”
I held my breath before hitting “post” because I knew there would be a reaction. But not acting, for fear of sparking a backlash, meant abdicating my right to participate in a democratic society. Algorithms be damned.
The reaction was swift and in some instances bruising. I was told to “butt out” because I don’t live in the USA anymore. Even though I’m a dual citizen, still file US taxes and the majority of my family lives there.
I was “unfriended” and labelled a “hater”. However what disturbed me wasn’t the labels or the name calling. It was about how deeply personal politics has now become, a particularly painful challenge when it exposes a nerve: the tension between loyalty to family and other deeply held core values.
When I was a child, I would weep when we left my father at home to spend summers with extended family. It felt like my heart might never heal. The same scenario would play out when we’d pile in the car and return home to him, but leave everyone else behind. It seemed like we lived a world away, and I was afraid our close connection might fade away.
Why does family connection feel so precious, so special – and yet so fragile? Because, ideally, on some deep level it’s where we feel safe, understood, accepted, loved. And the danger of losing that connection, for whatever reason, threatens our sense of self, happiness, emotional stability and security.
But today, increasingly, our sense of warm connection to loved ones is being challenged in fundamental ways, as one American woman revealed in a searingly honest personal essay about disagreeing with her father, an ardent Trump supporter. After reading about her experience, I’m beginning to understand how families ended up on opposite sides in wars or alienated for generations.
With the stress of the global pandemic, and political polarisation only deepening, it’s highlighting how many of us are living with this increasing cognitive dissonance. We are beginning to question whether people we care about deeply might not really know us at all, or if we have fundamentally different values. And it’s not just happening in the US.
The shock of that realisation can feel like a virtual slap in the face. When that divide becomes so crystal clear, it seems almost impossible to know how to navigate forward.
As soon as I posted the article on Facebook about Covid-19 data, a family member messaged back, warning me not to believe everything I read. And they were right, to an extent. In this era of sophisticated disinformation campaigns, it’s important to remain alert to how easily we can be fooled. But I built a successful career on reporting, research and a concerted effort to remain objective. I have a trained editorial eye. When that family member messaged me, that was apparently ignored or forgotten. Another message from a loved one claimed the media is at the heart of a Deep State conspiracy. Again, I spent 20 years of my life in the news business.
While I’m no longer a practising journalist, I still see the world through a journalist’s eye. I observe, do my best to draw the right lessons, and try to make it all make sense. But now the field I dedicated so much of my life to is being denigrated; journalists are being vilified and sometimes even beaten. The media is being called an enemy of the people by a sitting president.
Rising above is getting harder to do. I feel like one of those cartoon characters with round eyes open wide – I keep rubbing them as a little squeegee sound effect plays in the background, trying to make sure what I’m seeing really is happening.
In response to that fateful Facebook post, someone also used the term TDS, or “Trump Derangement Syndrome”. It was a phrase I hadn’t read before, but it opened my eyes even more.
“Derangement” is a powerful word. It perfectly captures the lens through which one side sees the other right now. Ironically I was surprised when I read that TDS is most often used by Trump supporters to describe anti-Trumpers. A Psychology Today article even characterises it as a “folk category” of mental disorder based on an extreme “fear and loathing” of the 45th president. I recognise TDS in myself at times, and I try to fight if it rears its angry head: when I have a visceral reaction, a feeling of anger or disgust.
I realise this kind of reaction means I need to step back and engage my prefrontal cortex. At that point I ask: What’s triggering me? Am I overlooking anything? Am I considering other perspectives? I try to talk it out with someone. This takes a concerted effort: it requires a heavy virtual doorstop to keep an open mind and apparently a secure ego. As a research professor at USC put it, “to consider an alternative view, you…have to consider an alternative version of yourself”. That’s a tall order but a critical skill we all need to master if we want to find a way forward.
Continuing to approach discussions like head-on confrontations, pitting one set of deeply held beliefs against another, doesn’t lead to progress. It only deepens polarisation. People start digging in. Tensions heighten and hearts harden. And if I “win” my political point, I may rupture a relationship forever.
This feels like a zero sum game. To me, that’s too high a price to pay – even with loved ones who stand firmly on the other side of the political fence. So I’m agreeing to disagree, even if it requires that I disengage. Even though that feels a lot like giving in.
Maybe it’s a deeply ingrained sense of duty, or perhaps a childlike idea about what family really is. I can’t really answer the question: other than by blood or by marriage, what actually makes family my people? But family still feels fundamental to who I am.
By deciding not to engage, I know that some might accuse me of not being strong enough to consider an “alternative version of myself” or to prioritise my political ideals. But I wonder, is the only way to create change in society by sacrificing relationships for our beliefs? What about the deep psychic pain that causes? Isn’t not inflicting pain a value too? Or is it simply social conditioning?
I know I’m not the only one having this silent debate. It’s happening around the world. Many are wrestling with their consciences as society struggles to progress.
Still, in the midst of all of my questions one argument seems always to rise to the surface. As the authors of a study on political beliefs put it, “Few things are as fundamental to human progress as our ability to arrive at a shared understanding of the world…human knowledge and human cooperation depend upon such feats of cognitive and emotional flexibility.”
Flexibility. There’s a powerful word. Flexibility means opening our minds, elevating our discourse, debating respectfully, actively trying to understand and sometimes taking a step back.
And how about cooperation? There’s power in that word too. It means working to preserve even the tiniest shred of common ground.
I’ve always recognised the role of agitators on the edges of society: their more extreme actions nudge the needle in the centre toward change. I deeply respect those who choose to stand firm on their ideals and values at great personal cost. But they are part of a larger equation.
Progress also requires cultivating the flexibility to forge a peaceful way forward, together.
And maintaining the peace to preserve the love within my family is where I feel compelled to start.