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Can you stay friends with people who have different political views?

When was the last time you admitted you were wrong? When was the last time you changed somebody’s point of view? Do you even try anymore? Centuries ago, the philosopher Immanuel Kant talked about what makes a ‘common sense’ in civic culture possible. Each person must learn to think for themselves. But each must also try to learn to see issues from the perspective of others, which may lead them to modify their opinions.

Does that describe Australia today? How about the United States? As our society and public debate appears increasingly divisive and toxic, are we able to be friends with people who have different political views to us?

Deakin University Associate Professor of Philosophy Matthew Sharpe believes Australia is more tolerant than ever before, on one reading of the cultural landscape. He recalls growing up in a society where casual racism, which is now considered unacceptable, was widespread. The recent legislation of same-sex marriage would have been unthinkable decades ago.

But at the same time, Australia, and to a great extent, the US, are the legatees of the culture wars, which picture civil life in a very divisive way, Assoc. Prof. Sharpe says. There is little common ground.

‘There are inevitable casualties in such a war: the ability to respect the opponent, and

suppose that they are mistaken, rather than deluded or evil is one of them,’ he says. ‘Instead, the political world looks more and more Manichean: divided into Us and Them, Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, and either side’s rhetoric becomes more and more polarising.’

What does division look like in Australia?

Divisive issues such as same-sex marriage, or whether it’s appropriate to still celebrate Australia Day aren’t sitting below the surface waiting to be scratched. They are mainstream in the public and political debate. On the one hand many Australians are in favour of changing the date of Australia Day, given what it represents for Indigenous communities including death, disease and loss of land. On the other hand, Australians defend the public holiday as a celebration of Australian culture. While most of the public debate falls into one of these two camps, in practise, most Australians don’t mind if the date changes or stays the same.


'The political world looks more and more Manichean: divided into Us and Them, Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, and either side’s rhetoric becomes more and more polarising'

Associate Professor Matthew Sharpe,
Deakin University

A similar polarity arose in the face of African gang violence in Victoria. Data from the Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency showed that people born in Sudan or South Sudan in Victoria were overrepresented in crimes such as aggravated burglary. The issue became a political flashpoint with the Federal Government slamming the Victorian Government’s handling of gang related violence. This divide came to a crescendo in an off-the-cuff debate between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Victoria’s acting Premier James Merlino at a recent press conference, where Malcolm Turnbull questioned the state’s handling of youth crime. 

Is social media a factor in the fractured nature of society?

Social media channels like Facebook and Twitter are a key factor of a growing cultural divide. Assoc. Prof. Sharpe argues Facebook is not only a venue for exchanging baby pictures or even bullying, but has seen increasing numbers of people bypassing traditional media to get their news.

The problem? Facebook is a big memory device that records your activity and uses algorithms to ‘feed’ news that it knows we will like and share, Assoc. Prof. Sharpe says, often based on right or left perspectives. The news we like is not always the news we need. And that means the news we share with our friends and with whom we agree politically is likely to confirm our existing beliefs about the world.

Assoc. Prof. Sharpe argues this can create a ‘filter bubble’ where we only have access to what has been preselected on the basis of our likes and shares. ‘The ability to consider the other guy’s opinion is being eroded – or rather, the need for this ability, vital to democratic culture, is being removed,’ he says.

So can we be friends with people with whom we have difference with?

It’s always been hard to be friends with people with whom you fundamentally disagree. Assoc. Prof. Sharpe says there are ways to avoid disagreement; staying clear of divisive subjects, sticking to areas of mutual interest. But these strategies depend on a basic respect for the other person. The ‘filter bubble’, he says, and the resultant division in basic ways of understanding the world makes it even more difficult to respect and consider the opinions of people different to us.

‘When we share news that agrees with our opinions, with people who also agree with those opinions, this can create the sense that we are so OBVIOUSLY right about the world that anyone who disagrees with us must be either wicked — fundamentally bad; brain-washed or deluded.

What does this look like? So, for the right, people on the left are enslaved to a self-hating, civilization-destroying, totalitarian groupthink called “political correctness”, Assoc. Prof. Sharpe says. For people on the left, people who vote Trump etc. are “deplorables”, “racists”, “sexists”.

From personal experience Assoc. Prof. Sharpe says maintaining friendships with people you strongly disagree with is definitely possible. He cites a friend who is much further right than he is. Assoc. Prof. Sharpe agrees with this friend on prioritising the people close to us but disagrees on how much we owe people more distantly related to us.

Staying open-minded to the other person’s point of view and letting them keep you in check is key. And according to Assoc. Prof. Sharpe: ‘I think admitting the possibility that you are wrong, although extremely difficult in practice, is also vitally important.’ If that doesn’t work, he suggests don’t mention the war.

Read more about how you can get your point across and argue like a great philosopher.




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Dr Matthew Sharpe
Dr Matthew Sharpe

Associate Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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