The Ties That (No Longer) Bind
A few months ago I wrote that “I don’t want to “heal America’s divisions.” I’m reflecting on that sentiment this morning, the day before what may be the most important election of our lifetimes.
Many of us have some version of the braying racist, fascist, misogynist drunkle archetype in our lives. A Karen, a Chad, a Becky. Maybe it’s a relative we have to contend with at holiday dinners. Maybe there are family obligations, so we grit our teeth, bite our tongues, and tell our children (before and after) to ignore the ravings of the yahoo at the other end of the table. For others it may be a long-time friend who drifted in the wrong direction through the years. Or maybe the friend never changed, but we drifted in the right direction.
If you’re on Facebook you know the dynamic. Some of us cut the cord. Others engage. I see a lot of people close to me doing all they can to maintain the old bonds, appealing to friends and relatives with reason, with love, with empathy. I respect their goodwill, but I also know the pain they’re feeling as they try to preserve the ties that no longer bind.
In recent months I’ve noticed more and more – and thought about it more and more – cases where a stranger on somebody else’s thread says something appalling. In one comment, often no more than a few words, the person has told the world what they are. Maybe you dismiss it and walk away. Or maybe it’s more than you can stand, so you wade in.
But then, on one of your own posts, one of your friends or relatives says essentially the same thing. You’re mad and probably embarrassed. But … you don’t unfriend. You don’t block. You don’t flame. Instead … you try to convince them. To win them over. Because there’s a history. Memories, love, shared good times, and bad. Obligation.
To a neutral third party, though, these two people are exactly the same. They have defined themselves by statements of racism or misogyny or homophobia or religious bigotry or allegiance to fascists or any number of other crimes.
The inconsistency – the hypocrisy – is you. Because you know the person in question you make allowances. Deep down, X is really okay. He/she has a good heart. He/she was there for me when nobody else was. He/she would do anything for me. And on, and on. You make an exception for one bad actor but not another.
In Dumpster Fire Days (easily the album of the year so far), Matthew Grimm yanks it all into focus:
My dear grandma was the salt of the Earth and the pride of Magnolia Street
Never missed a Sunday at Grace Lutheran, proud member of the Moral Majority
Couldn’t do enough for you long as you’d accepted Jesus, thought Mexicans society’s bane
She said Martin Luther King was a commie troublemaker and AIDS was God’s cleansing rain
Matt wraps “Salt of the Earth” by declaring that
The salt of the Earth is no spice of life
it’s the poison that’ll end it all
So here I am, on November 2, looking in the mirror and trying to justify giving people a pass. Make no mistake: Donald Trump is a referendum on what kind of human being you are.
If your actions threaten others, if you’ve cast your lot with those who see bullying and gleeful bigotry and an end to fundamental human rights for those different in any way at all, why is knowing me a get-out-of-jail-free card?
If certain words or actions make clear your position as an avowed enemy of basic human decency, why does it matter that we’re blood or that we were friends in college or that my husband/wife feels an obligation to try and keep the peace?
How can I give myself a pass for enabling you? That’s providing aid and comfort to those who are committed to undermining the society I’m trying to improve, right?
If Trump is a referendum on your essential character, then you’re a referendum on mine. We are who we ride with.
I know – this is a hellishly hard thing to even ponder. If all goes well, a month from now I might be sitting here a little less worried. I hope so.
But some very dark clouds are gathered around us and November 2020 is one historians might well be writing books about a hundred years from now.
Hard choices are going to need making, and all of us need to be thinking deeply about how we deal with those whose only real virtue is that we used to like them.