A few days ago, an op-ed column co-written by Bari Weiss and Eve Peyser, titled “Can You Like the Person You Love to Hate?,” was circulating around my Twitter timeline. Bari Weiss is a writer and editor for The New York Times Opinions section and Eve Peyser is a politics and culture writer for Vice. The two women fall on relatively opposite ends of the political spectrum; Bari Weiss admitted that she watched Peyser’s posts with a “suspicious side-eye.” However, she also wondered, “If we had met at a dinner party rather than on Twitter, would we have liked each other?” The article was formatted as a conversation between the two women about their face-to-face meetings, including a story about Peyser traveling from Brooklyn to deliver a loaf of homemade sourdough bread to Weiss.
The column was clearly meant to provide an answer to the question of whether or not it is possible to befriend someone with differing opinions on political and social issues than you, especially in the age of the internet. These two women were meant to be proof that bipartisan friendship is not only possible but should, in fact, be encouraged.
People were quick to point out that despite Peyser’s and Weiss’ political differences, their shared status as relatively successful white women makes it comparatively easy for them to put aside their conflicting opinions and focus on what they have in common. While both women acknowledge this privilege in the article, the acknowledgment seems hollow when one considers the rest of their conversation.
I came across another call to action about “reaching across the aisle” when I watched a Ted Talk given by musician Daryl Davis for my migration class. Davis told stories about his efforts to meet with KKK members in order to establish a dialogue that could lead to the improvement of race relations. He spoke about how he was able to befriend certain Klan members, despite the fact that many of them continued to claim that he, as a black man, was racially inferior. One Klan member even gifted him a medallion reading, “KKK – Member in good standing.” According to Davis, more people should engage people with differing opinions in conversation in order to heal conflict. He said, “When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting.”
If you ask me, it’s a little more complicated than that. Many people who stress the importance of engaging with people with differing political and social opinions emphasize that civility and mutual respect should be viewed as the most important things when participating in discussion. It seems to me, however, that this often translates to one person being able to share their contrarian and controversial opinions while the other person is punished if they retaliate. Peyser stated in the column that she equates her leftism with a “sense of radical empathy,” which leads her to choose to have an ideologically diverse group of friends.
While I am also a huge proponent of the importance of empathy and friendship, I am slightly more particular about who I choose to give it to. For example, being a descendant of slaves would get in the way of me ever befriending someone who makes an off-handed comment about slavery being good for the economy. I would similarly find it impossible to be friends with someone who did not believe in rights for sex workers. This is not me closing myself off in an echo chamber or not being willing to empathize with a fellow human being. In this case, empathy sounds a lot more like authorizing people to say and do controversial things while still being able to enjoy the benefits of being accepted by people at large.
Friends are supposed to exist as an extended support system. They can serve as an escape from the pressure that the outside world can contribute. No one, especially members of minority groups, should be forced or expected to cast off their opinions on political or social issues in order to be seen as a more palatable and easygoing friend. Empathy should not be synonymous with complicity.
Annick Tabb is a junior double-majoring in political science and English.