By Alexia Santamaria
It’s a bad time of year to throw a dinner party. While complaining about the weather will take up a good chunk of conversation, the close proximity of the election means it’s impossible to avoid the inevitable turn towards politics. Events of the last few years have meant people have much stronger views on what they think the incoming government should be doing, and how.
“From every movement we’ve seen in recent years to uphold Te Tiriti, or protect communities from Covid-19, hate speech, or the devastations due to climate change, we’ve also seen a backlash in other corners of society,” says Dr Emily Beausoleil, a senior lecturer in political science at Victoria University.
“That backlash has gotten bolder as we get closer to the elections.”
She suggests certain groups are encouraging this discord, more than in previous pre-election periods.
“From Julian Batchelor’s racist platforming to party promises to undo efforts to co-govern or to reverse the strides we’re making to ensure future generations know their own history, certain politicians and select groups are using this moment to stir up unwarranted fears and cause divisions.”
How do we deal with these potentially stressful interactions without skyrocketing our blood pressure? Diane Bellamy, a Dunedin-based psychologist, has given this some deep thought.
“It’s really important to try and be aware, curious and open about differences. In my own case, I came from a conservative religious background – yet am now a supporter of all faiths, pro-choice, a queer ally and a trained sex therapist – who would have thought it? In my early life, my views would have been much different to what they are now.”
Bellamy advises trying to manage your response if you’re in a social situation and considering your own dignity – and that of others – rather than being reactive and emotional.
“We often cannot help but show our shock or surprise when someone we thought we knew well expresses an unexpected or very different opinion to us – particularly if we find this offensive or against what we hold dear to us.”
Humour can be a helpful tool when you’re in the middle of a tricky conversation, Bellamy says.
“Like saying ‘hey, we are both voting for a guy called Chris! And haven’t they made a lot of promises this week?”
Havelock North pilates instructor Ken Tietjen, formerly of California, says he tries not to be too serious when it’s obvious that politics differ.
“You can do that more easily in New Zealand than in the States, where it’s so tribal – I was once accosted in the street for wearing a Hillary t-shirt! I try to find common ground, which isn’t too hard as most voters are sitting in the centre. The Kiwis seem to be a lot more laidback – you can make a jab at them and their candidate, use humour, and have a laugh and that’s ok and then you can move along.”
Tietjen has had a fair bit of practice of navigating tough conversations. He previously worked as a personal trainer in Beverly Hills, where he had to maintain professional relationships with people from wildly varying backgrounds.
“Some things are dealbreakers for me, and some aren’t. I try to find something we agree on first and then use questions to find those doorways to have those discussions. I guess I hope it will make them reflect, at least.”
If things are starting to get a bit fiery, Bellamy says it’s sometimes better to make an excuse to leave the room rather than start a fight.
“You really need to think it through when things are less heated – process the situation and evaluate your relationship. For example, if your politics don’t gel with someone in your social netball team, it might be manageable, but if it’s a closer friend, this might be a bigger deal.”
Ognish Ghosal, director of Webtactics in Auckland, agrees that it’s important to consider how much you value the friendship with the individual before deciding on a course of action.
“Once the value equation is established, everything falls into place. For example, I have a dear friend who has a heart of gold and is a very caring individual – she would literally drop everything to help if I needed it. Yet her political affiliation is the polar opposite of mine. I’ve learned to firstly weigh in her intrinsic values as a person to me versus her political views; and secondly, keep any political discussion very light-hearted. More listening than talking is very good. Mostly people just want their point heard. If I feel the conversation is going to get heated, I change the subject.”
Ghosal believes the solution might lie in trying to separate politics from people.
“I feel that our political views don’t define us, but our actions do. Core values in most good people are the same – like decency, consideration, empathy, love, loyalty, etc. So political views shouldn’t change those,” he says
“Political views may determine opinions, but shouldn’t impact core values. It’s important to separate opinions from actions. A person’s perspective based on political opinion will be limited to that. Their actions will be based on their core values and that’s what makes them the people they are.”
While agreeing to disagree might be the best way to ensure that everyone retains their dignity, Bellamy says it’s not without consequences.
“It can feel like a part of you dies when a close friend reveals a chasm of different values exist between you.”
She draws comparisons to a game of snakes and ladders. People can stay on the board, but sometimes they have to slide down the snake.
“This just means we re-evaluate the friendship – perhaps this person will now be a familiar acquaintance rather than a close friend.”
Despite our political differences, Dr Beausoleil says we have more in common than we think.
“We all want an Aotearoa where everyone can belong and be treated fairly and valued for who they are. We want to care for this generation and future generations – so we all can thrive. We need to be able to talk and feel heard across our differences so we can forge that vision together, with respect and dignity for everyone.”