It’s not you, it’s not them: The benefits of having friends across the aisle

Jan 28, 2023 04:32 PM IST

The path to any change begins with a disagreement. No one has all the answers. In our troubled times of anger and distrust, here’s why you should work to preserve friendships with those you don’t always agree with.

It was a physicist who perhaps put it best: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Niels Bohr dealt in quantum theory, so he knew this could be true, even in his field of predominantly absolute truths.

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It’s something true statesmen understand: As the only species that exhibits guilt, conscience and complex culture, it is our fate to wrestle with grey areas, and find, beyond each argument, others waiting their turn. It’s why US Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia could spend hours indulging a shared passion for food and the opera, despite disagreeing on issues such as same-sex marriage and immigrant rights.

In our polarised times, it is easy to throw in the towel, quit the WhatsApp group, shun reunions. But there are benefits to reaching out across the aisle. It’s the only way to effect change. It’s how civilisations are born and nurtured – going back to the first healed femur that, to many anthropologists, marks the start of ours. Not fire. Not dwelling. But the idea that a member of the community ought to be supported and cared for, rather than left behind.

Was that an absolute truth? Of course not. It’s safe to assume there were some who didn’t want to attempt to save one life by placing a host of others at greater risk. How did they navigate the arguments and decide to try a step in a new direction? Agreement most likely came from both sides admitting they didn’t have all the answers, but that it was time for a change.

All these millennia later, we don’t have all the answers. It is time for a change. Our times are troubled, our social circles are warring echo chambers full of anger and distrust.

Here’s why you should try to reach out to friends you’re at risk of losing across the aisle. (A caveat: we are speaking of people with closely held views, not a dependence on fake news; people with well-thought-out arguments, not blind devotion to an implanted cause).

Passion and engagement: In a world too full of passive onlookers, it is only the rare few who are passionate, involved, and engaging with the world. This can make for charged, informative discussions about issues that matter. Far better to be in a verbal sparring match, with the thrill of being heard, than sip beer laconically while Adele singing of failed love provides the only fresh banter. “Being able to speak to someone with opposing views gives you an opportunity to listen to yourself too,” says Arun Maira, management consultant, former member of the Planning Commission of India and author of Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us (2017). “It helps you identify triggers, what you feel strongly about and why you react in a certain way. It lets you step out of your boundaries and compels you to learn more about yourself and the other person.”

Escape from the filter bubble: Every online platform is now an echo chamber, offering more of what one liked before. These “filter bubbles” can foster intellectual isolation. “In a personalised world, important but complex or unpleasant issues are less likely to come to our attention at all,” entrepreneur Eli Pariser, who coined the term “filter bubble”, wrote in his 2011 book of the same name. A friend with contrarian views can be an important source of new information.

Discovery modes: When debate is backed by facts and credible arguments on both sides, there is often something to be learnt, discovered, explored. One might step away to read a book or listen to a podcast one wouldn’t otherwise have engaged with or even known about. One returns with fresh perspective and more information, to a discussion that might, in a best-case scenario, take a step forward. At the very least, such engagement and exploration contributes to a deeper sense of how others view the world, and a deeper understanding of why.

Humility: It is easy to become complacent in one’s views. Hyper-capitalism is all-wrong (or always right). The country needs more pro-diversity legislation (or none at all). Views become flat, fixed, slotted in place. They, and we, lose the nuance we started out with. It is important to update or evolve one’s arguments. A face-off with a friend can help turn a long-held truth into a fresh grounding exercise.

Trust, empathy, respect: If twopeople are willing to debate, engage and disagree, it’s a sign that they consider their relationship one of value. Such bonds are based in mutual respect, empathy, and trust in the other’s good intentions. “There is great beauty in letting go of absolutes and supporting oneself and others in the quest for learning. This takes intellectual courage,” says leadership coach Vivek Singh. “Contrarian views allow for a more wholesome, even democratic perspective to evolve. I do believe that one should be able to eat at the same table, even if not necessarily from the same loaf.”

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    Anesha is a features writer, sometimes a reader, who loves to eat and plan fitness goals she can never keep. She writes on food, culture and youth trends.

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