The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on whether it’s hypocritical for a liberal to socialize with an increasingly extreme conservative.
I am a liberal in a blue city in a red state. One of my friends is married to a man who has become increasingly conservative over the past year (an “anti-Black Lives Matter, anti-abortion, Democrats are all idiots and socialists are taking over the country” mind-set), and his posts on social media are becoming more and more extreme. We occasionally socialize as couples. When we are together, I am friendly with him, and we avoid overt political talk, but as his social media becomes more and more extreme, I feel conflicted about continuing to accept invitations to socialize with them. Is it hypocritical of me to socialize with them when I find his personal political views so abhorrent? Name Withheld.
When I was 15 and in Britain for school, I came to know a neighbor of my English grandmother’s. Then in his 60s, he was a right-wing member of Parliament whose views on the major issues of the day were utterly remote from mine. All the same, we enjoyed spending time together — when he took me trout fishing, it always involved more talk than trout — and though politics was far from the only thing we discussed, it wasn’t a topic we avoided. Once, when he drove me to visit the college he had attended (and that I would too, just as he hoped), I spent two full hours trying to persuade him to support an upcoming resolution to maintain the abolition of capital punishment for murder. We must have made an odd pair — a reactionary M.P. with the strapping build of the heavyweight boxing champion he was as an undergraduate; a willowy brown teenager who kept up with what was then known as The Peking Review. Still, as we whizzed past the hedgerows and incurious sheep of the Cotswolds, we carried on a vigorous debate over an issue we both cared a great deal about.
I do understand why people prefer to limit their socializing to people who share their view of the world and to steer clear of the maddeningly misguided. In recent years, certainly, America has reshaped itself in ways that accommodate the tendency. With the rise of “assortative mating,” bankers — to paint in broad strokes — no longer marry secretaries; they marry other bankers. Doctors no longer marry nurses; they marry other doctors. And so on, up and down the lines of income and class. (Although social scientists have argued that this trend has deepened economic inequality, it also reflects substantial and welcome gains in gender equality in the workplace.) More to the point, the United States has become politically sorted: Increasingly, your neighborhood will be predominantly red or blue, not mixed. If racial segregation has diminished somewhat over the past generation, partisan segregation has risen.
And so have partisan identities. Your friend’s husband, that is, has the political views of his tribe. These views, as with any tribal shibboleths, will often matter to him because they are signs of his membership. Maybe a few of his views were arrived at by careful reflection, but he probably couldn’t argue effectively for most of his opinions before an open-minded audience. The trouble is that the same is almost certainly true of you. You have the liberal tribal beliefs and commitments. And — as a substantial body of social-science research suggests — you probably did not acquire them by deep and thoughtful analysis, because you are like most of us. Identity precedes ideology: Who you are determines what you believe.
I’m happy to stipulate that your views are enlightened and his benighted. Still, it’s possible that you and this fellow are in one respect allied — that you are both committed, as citizens, to participating together in the governance of this battered republic of ours. Despite the forces that would keep us socially and even geographically isolated from one another, you each have a reason to try to understand the other tribe; to figure out what its members believe and (to the extent that there are arguments involved) why they believe it. Democracy falters not when we disagree about things but when we lose interest in trying to make sense of the other person’s point of view and in trying to persuade that person of the merits of our own.
Identity precedes ideology: Who you are determines what you believe.
If you took no pleasure in hanging out with this person, you wouldn’t be asking me whether you can go on doing so. And yet you write as if there are only two options here — tolerating his views in silence or cutting him off. Here’s a third option: Stick with this fellow but speak up for your politics. Encourage him to do the same. When we stop talking even to people we know and like because of political disagreements, we’ve abandoned the deliberative-democratic project of governing the republic together.
Not that we should delude ourselves about our prospects for shifting the other person’s shibboleths. At the end of that car trip, my burly interlocutor got out of the car, stretched his legs and told me, almost ruefully: “You may have won all the arguments today. I’m still voting against the resolution.” It passed anyway. And there were many other topics to discuss, from village gossip to high politics, the next time we went fishing.
My daughter is getting married in the backyard of her fiancé’s parents’ home. The wedding is outside under a tent, and more than 100 people are attending. We have informally been keeping track of who is vaccinated of those who have accepted the invitation.
Nearly all the guests are vaccinated, including the bride and groom. But not the hosts — her fiancé’s parents. They don’t believe in the vaccine; they said they haven’t gotten it yet, which to me is an untruthful way of saying they are not getting it. The vaccine is readily available in their area; they could waltz in today without a wait. They also don’t like wearing masks.
The area is fairly quiet now, as the year-round population is small. Most homes are owned by those who spend only the summer there, and it is still off-season. But when the crowds descend, it will probably be a riskier area from a Covid-19-exposure perspective.
If my daughter’s in-laws agreed to host the wedding in their backyard, shouldn’t they have agreed to be fully vaccinated in consideration for the guests, tent-rental people, caterers, photographers and others? Name Withheld
It makes a big difference that this event is being held outdoors. The C.D.C. tells us that fully vaccinated people can, sans masks, safely attend even a crowded event if it’s outdoors. That rule doesn’t apply to those with compromised immune systems, who will want to take personal protective measures, but I fear the incautious parents of the groom may be the ones at greatest risk. Yes, for reasons both prudential and public-minded, they should get themselves vaccinated, substantially reducing their chance of contracting and transmitting infection and of worrying the newlyweds if they do fall ill. For the sake of harmony between your two clans, though, you might want to express yourself on this matter in a tone of concern rather than judgment. Weddings, after all, arose to celebrate the union of families, not just individuals.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)