Saturday 17 August 2019

Can families survive a great political divide?

Chances are you won't always agree with your loved ones' opinions on affairs of the state, but is Christmas dinner really the place to debate the pros and cons of Brexit? Our reporter on how to navigate the muddy waters

Kanye West meets with US president-elect Donald Trump this week
Kanye West meets with US president-elect Donald Trump this week
Kanye West's wife Kim Kardashian takes a selfie with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign. Photo: Instagram
Caitlyn Jenner
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver
Amal and George Clooney

Tanya Sweeney

To say that we are living in politically interesting times is understating the case somewhat. There are many who will remember 2016 as the year of devastating political blow after blow; the year we lurched inexorably towards what feels like an apocalypse. Yet there are many others this year who have punched the air in triumph at the passing of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, or even the assembling of the 32nd Dail.

Either way, these dramatic developments have created an audience so vocal and impassioned that politics has moved into the realm of the gladiatorial. In the wake of Brexit or Trump's election, for instance, it wasn't uncommon to see not just tensions erupt on the streets of the US or UK, but also bust-ups on social media.

It echoed a sentiment closer to home last year felt keenly by those eager to see the same-sex marriage referendum passed. "If you are even considering voting 'No' in this referendum, please do me a favour and unfriend me on Facebook," one acquaintance posted in the run up to May 22. Suffice to say that things got ugly; friendships and, in some cases, familial relationships were irreparably damaged.

But this year, we ramped things up to a whole new level, with the sheer theatre surrounding armchair punditry edging ever closer to soap opera territory.

Kanye West's wife Kim Kardashian takes a selfie with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign. Photo: Instagram
Kanye West's wife Kim Kardashian takes a selfie with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign. Photo: Instagram

Days after the US election, writer Amy Tan announced on her Facebook page "we should cut out of our lives those people who were friends who voted for Trump". Words written in the heat of the intense moment, certainly, but it does beg the question: can close friendships and relationships survive times of such intense political change and polarisation?

It even happens with the A-list: after initially being accused of being politically 'on the fence', Kim Kardashian made no secret of the fact that she was Team Hillary. However, her husband Kanye West nailed his colours to the opposition's mast. A month after being booed offstage for announcing that he'd have voted for Trump in the election, he was photographed bonding with the US president-elect inside Trump Tower. Making things even more surreal, West has also announced that he has the 2024 presidency in his crosshairs.

Elsewhere in the Kardashian/Jenner clan, Caitlyn Jenner (pictured below) has made no secret of the fact that she's a card-carrying Republican, and according to reports even tried to convince stepdaughter Kim to consider voting for Trump.

Time once was that one's political leanings were much like one's age, or one's salary bracket; not something brought up in polite conversation. These days, one's political outlook is tied in inextricably with moral fibre, and character.

There is a widespread obsession in 'waking' others, bringing them round to our way of thinking, and disseminating the 'right' kind of information. Suddenly, those of a certain political outlook are 'good' or 'bad'.

Caitlyn Jenner

Not helping things is the idea of the echo chamber; the social media bubble where people follow and 'friend' like-minded types, and have their political opinions reflected back to them. It creates a sense of psychological well-being, apparently, to be surrounded by like-minded types and have one's own opinions reiterated.

And in a time when everyone is a pundit, where does the age-old adage of keeping politics out of friendships and relationships stand? Claire McGing teaches political geography at NUI Maynooth and describes herself as a social democrat. Her partner Joe, meanwhile, leans more to the right of the political spectrum.

"I'm a feminist, I want an increase in the welfare state and would like to see more corporation tax, but my other half would be slightly more centre-right," she explains.

"Our relationship to politics is very healthy for us and we engage in great debate all the time. It's never a bone of contention between us. Sometimes we annoy each other, but he wouldn't be a UKIP or Trotsky-ite. He's still very political, but we have a lot more in common than just our politics.

"I joke that I'm trying to convert him ever so slowly, but in my relationship, our differing outlooks work quite well," she says.

On social media, McGing has noticed the rise of the keyboard warrior: "On Facebook, for instance, I've hidden a lot of people," she says. "I have a few friends from one political party in particular, and I don't see anything of theirs on my Facebook timeline because I've hidden it.

"Last year, I saw an article shared about young Syrian refugees posing as ISIS members, and that's the sort of thing I don't bother engaging in. It gets pretty ugly, so I just zone out of it."

McGing is nonetheless passionate about a number of issues, among them climate change and gender quotas.

"Let's just say many people brought up on social media how stupid they thought gender quotas were," she smiles. "These are inherently polarising topics. When it comes to these discussions, I try to have a healthy debate with people.

"As an academic, I like facts and evidence, and I don't debate things I don't know anything about. Some people will debate anything if it's in any way on their political agenda. I know enough to get my head around Brexit, for instance, but I don't debate it with people, especially someone who lives in Britain and is directly affected by it. The thing is, these debates don't do a cause any favours."

Communications guru Terry Prone, meanwhile, makes a salient point: "When my wonderful husband I were newly weds, we went to a dinner party and Tom disagreed with something I said. I got into the car later and gave him the silent treatment, and he started to laugh. He said, 'just because we love each other, doesn't mean we can't disagree'.

"Previously, I'd regarded disagreement as treachery. But the thing is you can disagree ideologically with friends and family and still love them as people."

In fact, Terry says, being political opposites can have its upside: "It's a great mistake to believe you can only be friends with other feminists, environmentalists, Fianna Failers or Fine Gaelers. It's good intellectually to be around others when you're thinking, 'I want to choke you for your beliefs, but what example can I give you that will change your mind?'

"In the case of the marriage referendum, for example, people's minds were changed by examples, pictures and human stories, not by shouting and giving out."

As for how to navigate those tricky family get-togethers over the festive period: "The first thing to learn is not to argue when you can't change people's minds," surmises Prone.

"Just as they say there's no crying in baseball, there's no fighting in politics as there's no possibility of change. The best thing is to say to someone, 'I find that interesting' or 'you make a good point', and just keep quiet after that. Anything else will only upset and begin to stifle you."

When politics and partners collide

George and Amal Clooney

Amal and George Clooney

After meeting at a charity dinner, it was the actor and barrister's shared love of activism that really sealed the deal. Both have said the other's social awareness is a major point of attraction.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver

He's a Republican governor, and she's a member of one of the best-known Democrat dynasties in US political history. Ironically, commentators say that, even though that pair announced their split as Arnie was leaving office, his marriage to Shriver certainly helped to further his political career.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie


By all accounts, Brangelina differed on political opinion: Brad reportedly favoured Obama in 2012, while Angelina was reportedly disappointed in the candidate. Still, it didn't stop them travelling around the world aiding in disaster relief before their split earlier this year.

Irish Independent

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