“But you know, consent is so…difficult. Like sometimes women, they say no, but do they really mean no? I mean, I know you’re like a feminist, but…”
— These are the words a friend responded with when I told them I was leaving Reims for a couple of days to help write a sexual assault testimony. Although I’d like to say that I was shocked, a part of me wasn’t. We stood, after all, at relatively different ends of the political spectrum. But although they’d made some questionable quips in the past, it was hard to believe that such abstract disagreements could — and would — manifest in a way that impacted me and our friendship so profoundly.
I don’t talk to that person anymore.
Although this was an extreme manifestation of radically opposing political visions, it made me think about the ways in which the politics of those around me — especially my friends — manifested in our relationships, and about the extent to which politics shaped the very (im)possibility of the existence of such relationships.
Prima facie, friendships seemed — apart from some rare cases like the one discussed above — to exist in relative microcosms. Their world differed from the classroom, the protest arena, and hell, even the family dinner table. They relied on emotional connection, on fun. Come on, do you really need politics to play video games or get drunk with someone?
Having been seen as the “angry woke kid” most of my life, I knew the emotional labor that came with attempting to have discussions across the political spectrum. Indisputably, I wanted to believe in the promise of apolitical friendships. But what even was that?
When discussing the prospect of apolitical friendships with my friends, the common idea was that they characterized relationships where politics did not manifest. Not in discussions, not in projects, not in the decision to become friends with someone. They were built on the promise of respect for political differences: friend A thought this way, friend B that way, and this was perhaps acknowledged but never engaged with directly.
On that note, I remember someone arguing, “I have had friends fully from the far right and often the best.” Maybe, then, we did not need to reduce our circle of prospective friends or to isolate ourselves within an echo chamber of our peers which we aligned with politically, a move considered to be the black plague of any political science student.
But I think there is more to this belief. I think, underneath these claims lies a perhaps contradictory desire to see those whose political identity so clearly opposes our own, as people, before anything else.
There is admittedly a dimension of advocacy to this. One of my friends told me, “often the best way to change someone’s mind is to not talk politics but to just show them that some of their assumptions are wrong.” A non-polemic, human-centric connection could perhaps inspire this best.
But I think that, at its core, this conception exists because we want to believe that if we can see them as people before anything else, they can see us as such.
We want to believe it because we are utterly terrified of the opposite.
—When I was in high school, I was in a relatively diverse friend group. Some guys expressed outwardly conservative or progressive politics, some none at all. This, however, didn’t particularly seem to impact the way in which they related to their female counterparts. I say seem because as my high school years ended, I discovered a male-only group chat.
In it, my friends — yes, even the painted-nail-feminist ones — delightfully made fun of the girls in our group. We were either unattractive or superficial, prude or promiscuous, but stood mockingly united under the banner of the “woke sensitivity” that seemingly characterized women in general, especially in the context of the MeToo movement.
This was, by all means, political discourse. Political, and embodied. Indeed, when one of them, and then a second one, was accused of assault, the framing of women as sluts, liars, or overly sensitive came to its full glory, manifesting itself in the protection of these “Boys” at the expense of the victims.
This, unfortunately, did not end with high school. At university, I have heard many accounts of jokes drawing on borderline racist stereotypes, thinly veiled rape culture, or casual queerphobia.
These remarks are rarely open or clearly bigoted, like the one that opened this article. More often than not, they’re a “they’re doing too much,” a “does it have to be such a big deal?” comment about a marginalized group. They’re the dismissal of the experiences of minorities because “this isn’t what the debate is about,” or because of the sacred promise to “not be political right now.”
They’re the idea that someone clearly affiliated with the far right could be championed “most politically incorrect,” thanks to a precarious separation between the condemnation of a speech’s content and an apolitical praise of the speaker’s boldness, or value in one’s apolitical friendship.
They’re the complete inability of some to understand that not everyone knows how to ski because not everyone has the funds to learn and that not everyone can spend the summer break eurosummering without a care in the world. They’re the refusal to acknowledge the immense level of privilege of most students who can afford Sciences Po’s tuition, let alone dual degrees.
In short, they’re champagne caviar, left-wing socialism with a sprinkle of performative activism.
This encourages me to question the “morality” argument often used to (in)validate a belief in apolitical friendships. For instance, some of my friends told me, “politics is rooted in a lot of morals,” and that “as soon as you try to create a deeper connection, it’s impossible to ignore if someone does not share the same values as me.”
To some extent, this holds true: politics are by no means amoral, and someone’s morality, including as a friend, can absolutely manifest in their politics. It’s difficult, if not outright impossible, to consider certain opinions morally valid when they fundamentally infringe on people’s dignity and rights.
This does not mean, however, that an individual seen as “morally good” cannot have problematic views, or that these views mustn’t be questioned.
Nor does it mean that morality can be used to explain people’s behavior when politics seemingly fail to do so.
Indeed, many of us are unfortunately aware of the shock that comes with discovering that someone so outwardly committed to, for instance, feminism and non-violence, would be capable of completely violating these proclaimed values in private.
Our reaction to this is often marked by a desire to completely remove that person from the political sphere: to see them as an anomaly, a gear broken off from a politically sound system. But this underestimates the pervasiveness of politics, the impact of quips and of a culture itself geared towards violence against minorities, and this culture’s ability to penetrate even the most progressive minds.
In short, politics exist not just as explicit characterization but as an underlying framework informing people’s identity, relationships and decisions, which manifests even when these decisions contradict expressed political ideals. Expressed politics do not cement someone as morally “good”; a politically “good” person being morally “bad” does not mean the influence of politics on their behavior is rendered non-existent. Any simplification will inevitably bite you in the political, emotional, and interpersonal ass. Your rapists are the boys next door, they are political agents and political subjects. Friendships, in all of their underlying political potential, condition this.
The political nature of friendships, along with the political nature of just about everything and everyone, is often rejected by agents who feel less subjected to it because their existence and its perceived validity isn’t seen as, in itself, as a matter of political debate. It isn’t as precariously acknowledged within the political sphere.
Thus, simply being apolitical, and as an extension of this being able to conceive friendships as such, is itself a privilege, and a political act.
This explains the existence of an arguably valid desire for friendships to be apolitical because there is a valid desire for a world, or even a part of that world, in which our existence is not politicized against us.
But as much as I want my friendships to be truly apolitical, they can never be.
They can never be, because my experiences as a woman are political. Because my experiences as a queer person, as a student, and as a worker are political. Because these experiences shape my identity and my ability to navigate the world and relationships around me, which in turn condition what it means to be a woman, to be queer, and to be a student or a worker.
But how can I request the recognition of the role of gender in my life and friendships, and then completely disregard the role of race in the lives and relationships of those around me?
How could I claim to be a good friend, a good ally, and ignore the privileges that being able-bodied and middle class allowed me to have, rejecting discussions of that privilege when it was convenient to me, thus absolving myself of responsibility to keep my friends accountable beyond the instances where I felt personally attacked?
In short, this article has attempted to draft both a notion of a flexible standard of attention and an inflexible threshold of condemnation. On the one hand, it calls for attention to the subtle ways in which cultures of domination manifest themselves within friendships, both through their formation and the discussions within them. It advocates not for a removal of these friendships but for a recognition of their political character and our subsequent ability to use them to spread political awareness, by calling out our friends on their biases and introducing them to points of views they had not considered.
On the other hand, it recognizes a certain threshold— inflexible in its nature and fuzzy in the ability to determine where it begins — beyond which behavior is unacceptably bigoted or violent. Again, it emphasizes the need to recognize the political framing and impact of such behavior, which the safety of friendships often condition or even excuse.
But going forward, what does all of this mean? A politicization of each and every discussion? Censorship of every diverging political view?
I would hope not.
But it certainly means a questioning, a reassessment. Of our privilege, and of the way it frames our life and relationships. It means committing to accountability, listening to the experiences of others and the ways in which politics manifests outside of the ways we are personally able to feel it.
It means looking at ourselves in the mirror as a collective, as friends, when we find out the worst things about the people we trusted and ask ourselves how we may have allowed it to happen, and how we can work for it to never happen again.