Shortly after the US elections, Chinese-American writer Amy Tan posted this on her Facebook page:
We are now determining different ways we can support what matters to the country, our world, and our planet. One of those decisions is to cut out of our lives those people who were friends who voted for Trump or for third-party candidates as a ‘protest vote’, or for no one.
Very harsh words I thought when I read them in Nilanjana Roy‘s column in the Financial Times entitled “How to keep friends across the political divide.” Roy, too, questioned Tan’s decision. Isn’t there still value in gathering disparate world views around the dinner table? Shouldn’t friendship take greater precedence over politics?
To me, politics is how we think about the role of government. You can believe that a government’s role should be limited, say, to national defense. Or you can think that a government should protect the weak. Whatever you may decide is the proper scope of government, there are a lot of problems out there. So politics is also about choices. Reasonable minds can differ on whether the choices made are the correct ones.
When the issue becomes who is worth protecting, we have left the realm of politics and entered the world of morality.
at the dinner table
If a family member says to me that immigrants should be banned from Holland, I’m flummoxed. Perhaps she doesn’t realize that I’m an immigrant? But when I draw this to her attention, my relative hastens to reassure me. I’m not the sort of immigrant she wants banned. Because “my kind” has behaved itself. So far.
When a friend tells me that women are biologically and culturally incompetent to reach the top, I am equally stunned. As a former lawyer and partner of a major law firm in Amsterdam, this is a slap in the face. But none of this is supposed be taken personally. My friend is talking about women in general and not me in particular.
And yet I feel attacked. As an immigrant and a woman, I have been relegated to the other status. When did that happen? Or am I the one who foolishly assumed that I was one of us?
Camille Dungy is an African-American poet with the heart of a lion. She has written painfully of her experiences in the new Trump reality. It’s the Sunday after the election. Camille and her family are at church. Their pastor offer a message of compassion for all those who may be at risk under the Trump administration. The pastor has made a list:
Black people, Hispanic and Latinx people, LGBTQ people, women, children, refugees and other immigrants, people of different faiths, especially Muslims, disabled people, and those with health concerns
Then the pastor says:
Let us pray for those who are on the outside of our society looking in.
Hold on, says Camille. He’s talking about me. But I’m sitting right here, in this pew, with my family and the rest of our congregation. Dumbfounded but not yet silenced, Camille approaches the pastor after the service. She expresses her grief:
The language you used during the prayers of the people, I told the pastor, was hurtful and dangerous.
This was not what he expected, obviously, and he looked wounded and surprised.
All those people you listed, I continued, we are […] part of this society! We are at the very center of what America has been built upon. But the rhetoric you used during that prayer is a rhetoric of exclusion.
Camille has since left her church. She’s voting with her feet, just as Amy Tan has. They know there will be racism in the streets and at their place of work. They have chosen not to allow it into their church or their homes.
I expect to be treated as an equal, not as a candidate for equal treatment. What then do I do when people at my dinner table refuse? Nilanjana Roy offers two alternatives:
You’d either have clashes between friends, neither side even remotely getting through to each other, or a species of conversational dishonesty would prevail, with everyone masking their real views so that they could get through dinner without too much bloodshed.
silence vs truth
I’ve become political since Trump was elected, an activist at the ripe old age of 57. I feel it’s also a stage on a longer journey towards self-expression. But writing a blog post is so much easier than telling a family member she’s a racist or a friend he’s sexist.
Suppose I find the courage to say what I think. What goal will I have achieved? Friction in the family and the loss of a friend. That’s a high price to pay for principle. Then again, what is the value of a relationship that so clearly defines me as other?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines politically correct as:
Conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.
That sounds as milquetoast as the old saw: if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. A politically correct person must speak of nothing other than the weather and then only in admiring terms. You might as well bite off your tongue.
The Oxford dictionary offers a more specific definition:
The avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.
So it’s politically incorrect for my friend to call women incompetent but ok for me to call him sexist? I’m afraid that is exactly how PC speech works. To be politically correct is to be protective of one group of people while being intolerant of another. What’s the point of that?
I can imagine how religion can lighten human suffering, even though I’m not a believer. It’s understandable why some Republicans believe in deregulation, though I may disagree. I believe in sexual equality but think that quotas are counterproductive, to the dismay of some of my friends.
Reasonable people can disagree about politics and still remain friends. But I cannot tolerate a world view that sets my value by the color of my skin or my gender. I will fight that idea in the streets and in my own home, too. And if you and I cannot agree about my equality to you, then you are no friend of mine.