Melissa*, 30, was in the middle of making dinner when she paused to take a quick look through Instagram and saw a post about the Israel-Hamas war from a colleague. “The wording felt insensitive,” she recalls, explaining how the post was an attempt to contextualise the Hamas attacks in Israel on 7 October. “Without having shared any sympathy for the Israelis whose family members had been killed, raped, or kidnapped, she just started immediately posting Palestinian flags, and trying to explain the history of the occupation. We’re close friends and often hang out outside of work; she knows I’m Jewish and have family in Israel.”
After seeing several posts like this, Melissa felt compelled to tell her colleague that they had upset her. “I tried to ask why she was talking about this without condemning what Hamas had done, explaining how that affected me, and it turned into a massive argument. She was lobbing all sorts of infographics at me and using really inflammatory language, saying there were terrorists on both sides. It’s really awkward in the office now: we just avoid each other.”
What happened to Melissa is not unusual. In fact, today, as our lives become increasingly politicised, and the corresponding discourse takes up more online space, society feels more polarised than ever before. For some, this is sparking a series of confrontational conversations among friends, revealing surprising viewpoints, while blindspots are exposed under the glaring light of day.
Of course, disagreeing over politics at the dinner table is hardly new. But it seems to have become more prevalent since the pandemic, which invariably divided many of us on subjects ranging from the NHS and lockdown regulations to wearing masks and compulsory vaccines. And it’s not like we’ve been short of things to talk about since. Whether it’s the Israel-Hamas war, the climate crisis, or Andrew Tate – in 2023, there are countless social and political issues at our disposal. And they are tearing us apart.
In 2021, think tank the Centre for Policy Studies published a survey claiming that Britons are “writing each other off and out of our lives” because of political disagreements. The research, led by Dr Frank Luntz, found that half of under-30s and a third of over-30s have stopped talking to someone over a political opinion. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found that 80 per cent of Americans now have “just a few” or no friends at all across the political aisle. And it seems that even this issue is becoming politicised, because a recent Ipsos study claimed that liberals were less tolerant than right-wingers of political difference.
With everything that’s going on in the world right now, and a seemingly endless barrage of humanitarian, environmental and sociopolitical issues, it makes sense that people want to discuss them with their friends. But how are we supposed to maintain those friendships when everyone is so divided? Can you really have a furious debate about politics with a pal and then just agree to disagree? And what if these issues bring to light views you never knew your friends had?
“Friendships are not just based on common political views,” says Gurpreet Singh, a counsellor at relationships support charity Relate. “They are based on many other things, too, like common interests, common values, personal connections and life stages. If approached with a non-judgemental attitude and openness, a conversation with a friend with different political views can be an enriching experience that helps you understand a different point of view.”
If you’re going to end a friendship over a political disagreement, it is better to take time to reflect on your decision and think things through rather than act in the heat of the moment
Gurpreet Singh, counsellor
The trouble is that in order for this kind of conversation to be facilitated, both parties need to be open and willing to do it, which is not always the case. It also doesn’t help when it’s not just one friend you fall out with, either, but an entire group. Two years ago, Alice*, 28, was mid-conversation with a bunch of school friends when talk turned to Meghan Markle, who’d recently alleged in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that there were “concerns” within the royal family about her child’s skin tone. “None of them thought it was a race issue,” recalls Alice, who is white. “They just tried to justify it. And when I tried explaining why, if true, it was objectively racist, they all just told me to ‘chill out’ and kept saying, ‘It’s not like it affects you.’”
Another key talking point that has divided friends these past few weeks is Russell Brand. Last month, the comedian-turned-YouTuber was accused of sexual assault and emotional abuse (allegations he has denied). But fans have been quick to rush to his defence, picking holes in the allegations and fervently expressing their support across social media. When Alice raised the issue with that same group of friends, she was shocked at how sceptical they were of Brand’s accusers. “They poked holes in each of the women’s stories, asking where the evidence was,” she says.
For Alice, who has been sexually assaulted herself, the conversation was a wake-up call. “I started hyperventilating when I tried to explain why what they were saying was so damaging,” she says. “But they all just told me to calm down again and not be so confrontational. It was that moment that made me realise I needed to really distance myself from them; it’s not good for me to be around people like that.”
“There are some conversations that are gateways to understanding that your values system is very different from those of your friends,” explains Singh. “Values are some of the core binding principles for friendships and relationships. And if you start to disagree at this level, then the difference tends to grow rather than dissipate. This can again make the relationship unsustainable.”
It’s one thing to have a political disagreement with a friend. It’s another when it’s your partner’s friend. This was what happened to Imogen*, 32, when she went out for drinks with her then-partner and a couple that he was close to. “They were very out of touch,” she says, revealing how they had spent one evening complaining about only receiving a £90,000 bonus and somehow flew to the Maldives during the pandemic. They were out for drinks one night when talk turned to Donald Trump, who was going up against Joe Biden for the US presidency at the time.
“I dropped in how stressful it was knowing Trump could win again, and there was a silence,” she recalls. It turned out that the couple were avid Trump fans. “I started off trying to be diplomatic, asking them why, and they admitted it was for selfish reasons as they planned to move back over to America, and felt that he better represented their financial interests. I tried to counteract this by bringing up his stance around minorities, but they just didn’t care – it transpired that they wanted to move to the US because they didn’t like the UK tax system because, as they put it, ‘Why should my money go to poor people? They don’t work hard and expect handouts.’”
In instances like this, it might feel easy to walk away without trying to get your point across, because of how futile it seems. But of course, there’s only so much you can bite your tongue. “I found that conversation very difficult and upsetting, as I have worked with vulnerable people for the majority of my career, and know all of the things they were saying to be untrue,” says Imogen. “I was able to provide counterarguments to show them how they were wrong, but it was shocking to find out that two people I knew could have such vile opinions.”
Imogen never saw them again. “They also unfollowed me on Instagram the day after the conversation, which made me feel like I was the one in the wrong. I really struggled with that at the time, but looking back, I’m very glad not to be linked to them any more.” For Melissa, things haven’t been as clear-cut given that she has to see her colleague every day at work, and because she was fairly close friends with her beforehand.
“If you’re going to end a friendship over a political disagreement, it is better to take time to reflect on your decision and think things through rather than act in the heat of the moment,” suggests Singh. “Rather than cutting them completely out of your life, you might want to think about distancing yourself and keeping the parts of the relationship that you can. For example, disagreeing about a political view might still mean that you can go to watch a movie together, but avoid getting into political debates.”
In some ways, these disagreements can prove helpful in the long term, helping you to learn more about your own values and what you’re willing, and not willing, to compromise on. “It has really changed the way I approach friendships, as I know now that I need people in my life that align with my own moral compass,” adds Imogen. “This isn’t to say that I’m not up for a healthy debate, or that I won’t get to know someone who has differing opinions to me, because that isn’t realistic. But I also know that there is a line.”
*Names have been changed