Mending Fences (Even When You Really Don’t Want To)

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Social Q’s

My problem? You and idiots like you, full of straight white male privilege, who never understood the life-or-death stakes of sexism, racism and homophobia in our recent election. I heard you on the radio last week, sounding like a fool, telling people who had fought over the presidential election (and cut ties with family and friends) to look for the best in each other and talk it out. Why is it always on the victims to explain ourselves to straight men and white people? I’ve had it! After this election, I want nothing to do with any jerk who voted for Trump or limousine liberals like you. Why should I?


Desperate times call for desperate measures. So I will engage with you, Janelle, even though you insulted me three times in one brief paragraph. (This is not the way the world usually works.) Angry, contemptuous speech — even when it’s understandable — diminishes both of us, and would typically result in my dismissing you. (Or writing an even nastier reply.) But your letter goes to the crux of Social Q’s. So let’s talk. And let me begin by saying I’m sorry for upsetting you.

The radio segment you’re referring to, on “The Leonard Lopate Show,” was about election-fueled brawls and the resulting estrangement among family and friends. By definition, the combatants are (mostly) people who love us and whom we love.

What better investment can we make than engaging — calmly and with personal examples — with our (slightly sexist) father, for instance, about the brute inequity of our sister’s earning less money than a guy who does the same job? Or our (homophobic) aunt about how being gay is not a choice? Or our (clueless) white co-worker about the baked-in racism that shuttles so many black men to prison?

I get the mean irony of forcing victims to educate people who advocate further harm to them (with their votes). But that has always been the nature of social-change movements. And for a country that as recently as the last few years actually pretended that most of our important institutions are race and gender blind, this day of reckoning had to come. And our stunning election has laid it bare.

By engaging with others, I do not mean posting hectoring rants on social media or sending rude emails. They accomplish nothing. I am talking about the slower, labor-intensive process of face-to-face conversation. Is that a drag? You bet. But I don’t know another way. And I suspect you don’t either.

A more global reason for this approach: It is not my experience that 47 percent of the people I meet (i.e., the number who voted for the other party’s candidate, whomever you voted for) are idiots or bigots. Taking a few extra steps with some of them, starting with the ones we really care about, to explain how their political positions wound us seems like an obvious place to begin.

Now, add in the pragmatic value of consensus-building. None of the things that you and I want deeply for our county: equality for every woman and man; a better education system; a compassionate immigration program; a fairer economy; kindness — can be achieved in our current polarized climate. We have to do something.

Yes, it will be slow-going and, as you point out, asks even more of people who have already been harmed. But when we take the time to explain the “code” of coded language (e.g., “the inner cities are a disaster”) to people who have had the good luck not to grapple with it, they get it. And often, they care.

Isn’t that better than retreating to our separate corners (and our 47-47 split) and fuming? And when we civilians start talking and working together, our elected officials will take note and follow suit, if they want to keep their jobs. It’s our only hope.

P.S.: Everyone (including my second-grade teacher, way back when) knows that I am gay.

Flight Pattern

I am getting married. The wedding will be in my fiancé’s hometown, across the country from my family. My sister-in-law (my only sibling’s wife) is refusing to come, claiming flight anxiety. She has flown only sparingly in her life. I have called her and my brother separately to let them know how much it would mean if she came and how hurtful it would be if she didn’t. But she hasn’t budged. It feels like a slight, and not the type of thing my fiancé and I foresee forgetting very easily. What should I do?


Stop using emotional blackmail, for starters. (Or double-down and binge-watch “The Sopranos” to learn how the experts use threats and intimidation.) I get that your wedding is a big deal for you. But it will not take place in a vacuum. Your guests’ lives also count for something, which is where your sister-in-law’s fear of flying comes in. You have explored the question with her; now move on. Don’t try to force her or overplay your hand. Enjoy your big day and try not to collect grudges. Keep your hands free for your beautiful bouquet.