I always…ALWAYS err on the side of kindness with people. It’s just my default nature. I don’t like carrying around anger or hurt or bitterness because navigating my mental health is hard enough without dealing with the negative feelings towards other people. But if there’s some sort of reason I struggle being kind to someone, I’m never cruel if we are together. “Polite distance” would probably be the setting I would take. But honestly…when I think back to conflicts in adulthood that would – by most standards – allow me to not be kind…I still have always offer kindness because…well…it’s the easiest thing to do when you’re me.
But there are times when it’s hard to interact with someone beyond basic politeness when they once posted something on Facebook declaring how disgusted they were with the mere existence of homosexual men. “Do you know how they have sex?” the guy posted, “it’s disgusting and I can’t pretend it’s normal.” I unfriended that guy on Facebook and when we see each other in public – which is several times a year – I don’t do more than greet him and then remove myself from the situation.
During the 2016 election campaign, I really struggled when I would run into people in the real world who I know supported Trump. I didn’t have that problem in 2008 or 2012 (the election years where I was on Facebook) – but for the 2016 campaign season I would see someone in public and think, you posted that you support Trump and I can’t stop thinking about that right now even though otherwise you seem kind.
So I did something I had never done before – something contrary to every “campaign season” blog post I had ever written…I started unfollowing people. We remained FB friends, but I didn’t have to be reminded of their support of a man who I despised. I wanted to be able to see someone at a race, or a community event, or a family gathering…and not be thinking about their support of Trump. I wanted the ability to default to kindness without the voices in my head reminding me of their support of him.
And for the most part, it worked. BUT! There is always the knowledge that I had to unfollow them for some reason, even if I can’t remember exactly what it was and so I keep them at arm’s length. I keep up a wall and guard my vulnerabilities. I just can’t get beyond surface level kindness with someone who does not support criminal justice reform, does not acknowledge systemic racism, does not demand equality at all points along the gender and sexuality binaries, and does not vote in support of reproductive freedom. I mean, I don’t give questionnaires for everyone to get notarized, but I assure you the second I find out you don’t line up with one of those things…there’s a wall of some size that I erect between us. I can be kind and if you’re family, I can offer love, but there will always be something I’m holding back in terms of the deep connections of friendship because these issues keep me up at night, they invade my constant mindset, they are as much a part of my life as my children and my husband. If you don’t support the same issues I do, that’s a huge part of my life we won’t be able to connect on.
And this is where we come to Ellen. At first, I ignored all of the criticism with her yukking it up with GWB. There is a group of people that hate every President and so you’re always going to offend someone if you’re nice to an ex-President. No POTUS has left office universally loved, so I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
BUT THEN SHE HAD TO ADDRESS IT. And that’s where my problems came in. There were two issues I had. First? She responded like the problem was, “Liberals shouldn’t be friends with Conservatives.” And Second? She called him a friend. Now, I’m not going to criticize treating anyone with kindness, but defending a friendship with someone who represents so much negativity for so many people? That’s a tough call. And most of the people criticizing her were not saying that liberals can’t be friends with conservatives…it was specifically: HIM. Like Roxanne Gay said on Twitter, “My Conservative friends didn’t start wars.”
Also? And the root of the problem I have with public displays of friendship to Conservative figureheads of ANY sort…is that sometimes being kind to one person who you don’t agree with, sends a message of “support” to all of the people you do agree with. Megan Amram (brilliant writer on The Good Place) put it succinctly when she said, “You can’t be nice to everyone because being nice to certain people is inherently cruel to others.”
I don’t envy being in the spotlight as a celebrity, but part of that spotlight means that when you call people your “friends” then you are going to have to accept the negative message that sends to people whose actions that “friend” harmed. Scarlett Johansson experienced this recently when she support Woody Allen.
I’m lucky that 1) I don’t have to have every vocal note of support of someone critiqued and analyzed and 2) I don’t have to interact with people who have done real harm in the world. But…I don’t eat at Chik-fil-A – even now – because there are people in the LGBTQ+ who have never forgiven them and I’m terrified of being spotted there and someone delivering a message of unintentional support of their past practices.
This quote (not written by James Baldwin. Sorry.) means the most to me right now: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” But I would expand it to say, “is rooted in the oppression and denial of humanity and right to exist of myself, or of the marginalized people who I support.”
I would never say that the only option is cruelty. I would always err on the side of politeness. And I believe many people are won over with kindness when you’re pushing cultural shifts in perspectives. Not everyone listens to arguments based in fact, some people need to see kindness from the oppressed, hear their heartfelt stories and vulnerabilities, before their hearts change. And for that? The world needs people like Ellen to use a platform of kindness to still critique injustices when she wants to.
But she can’t expect people in marginalized communities not to be hurt when she calls someone like GWB a friend.