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How to Deal With Friends Who Are Racist, Sexist or Bigoted

In an increasingly divided world, should you sever relationships because associating with bigots make you a bigot or is it okay to let it slide as a small downside of someone who is otherwise great?

by Avinash Tewari
13 August 2019, 10:19am

Photo by Snapwire from Pexels

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

If you’ve spent time on social media over the last couple of years and seen anything other than cat videos, chances are you’ve seen people get increasingly divided in their opinions. You might’ve also seen the dark, disturbing side of humanity on the comments thread of any story pertaining to feminism, racism, LGBTQ rights, or politics.

Social media has unleashed the demons hiding inside a lot of people, probably because of the comfort of non-confrontation, and the ability to safely say whatever you wish—no matter how ridiculous—from behind a screen. What it has done, in turn, is create increasing rifts amidst friends, families, partners and acquaintances.

Among my own family and friends, I have had increasing arguments over the last few years. My aunt once said in a cab ride that “all terrorists are Muslims” and I was furious. This is not a surprise in a country like India, where every passing day, our nation seems to be shedding its secular, tolerant and democratic identity, with words like ‘libtards’, ‘sickular’ and ‘presstitute’ thrown around casually and abundantly. I proceeded to have a heated argument with the said aunt, as I did with friends when they supported Yogi Adityanath (who termed the Muslim League a “green virus”) or Pragya Thakur’s (a 2008 Malegaon blasts accused) getting elected. In the last five years, I’ve had more arguments with people on social media and in person, than I’ve probably had in all my life—and I’m sure the case is true for many of you reading this. With a heavy heart, I severed my relationship with a very close friend when his only response to an alleged terrorist being given a ticket to fight this year’s election was: “I will stand by whatever Modi decides.” Some of you may say that ending the friendship itself over political opinion was an extreme decision but I didn’t see it as a difference of opinion anymore; it was a difference of morals and ethics. I have no problem with the admiration of an individual or an idea, but when said admiration turns to reverence, which turns to unquestioning faith, and then leads to racism/sexism/homophobia/casteism/classism, that is a glaring problem.

I cannot lie about the fact that these arguments have affected my mental health and peace of mind time and again. I’m not alone out here; I know multiple people who don’t know how to move forward knowing that their friends/family members are closeted racists, homophobes or sexists. How does one continue to have a functioning relationship with these people when you fundamentally differ on moral and ethical grounds? I spoke to mental health professionals to understand the human psyche, and see what it is we can do to help find a middle ground amidst these extremes. Do we just ignore the racist relatives and the bigoted buddies, and continue with our relationships overlooking their opinions as an aww-gee-bummer downside of someone who is otherwise great? Or do we just cut the cord with them, slowly alienating people from our lives?

"This is a pretty common question these days, especially from clients who are 17 and above,” says Dr Seema Hingorrany, a clinical psychologist and trauma expert. “I believe a big reason for this is that the current generation tends to view the world in extremes of black and white, with little to no space for greys." Dr Hingorrany has seen several instances of people getting down and dirty over their differences in ideologies, with physical confrontations making appearances. “This is not healthy for anyone involved. When you get into a confrontation, try to first understand why this person might have such an extreme point of view, as there is a psychological reason for any and all behaviour. Social media has also caused a visible rise in depression, because people express their views vehemently, and then aren't able to deal with the backlash and trolling that might follow."

It gets a little more complicated in a family-oriented country like India where ‘respect’ for elders often means not questioning their choices. “First off, assess if you want to jump into an argument, or call out a relative's behaviour, which isn't always easy,” says psychologist Ishita Gupta, who says she saw her income jump significantly after the elections, with people’s polarised opinions affecting their mental health tremendously. “If you feel obligated to call out family members, be prepared for trolling and whataboutery. It's also extremely essential to analyse what is more important to you: is it your principles, or is it your friends/family/emotional support system, no matter how bigoted their opinions? Personally, I have no problem cutting such people from my life, but not everyone feels the same way. A lot of people would much rather choose to ignore the confrontation, and keep their connections."

But if you’d rather call out your buddy or engage with them, Dr Hingorrany has some pointers on how to go about. “Before anything, try to first understand if the person is even receptive to logic and reason, because trying to reason with a person who doesn't understand the concept, is moot,” she suggests. If you are still giving it a shot, keep your voice firm and assertive, but not aggressive. The tone you use, and how you word something make a massive difference in how the opposite person perceives your point. “Have constructive arguments with people who are calm and more open to hearing a different point of view. Even if you distance yourself from them, you don't necessarily have to cut them out of your life entirely. Fighting extremism with extremism is not really a solution."

If you do choose fight over flight, do keep in mind the mental health repercussions this comes with. Rashi Vidyasagar, who describes herself as a user-survivor of mental health and works at India’s largest foundation for mental health awareness, White Swan Foundation, says, "A person has only so much energy. Whether you struggle with mental health issues or not, being at loggerheads at all times is going to drain your energy sooner or later. So, you have to learn to prioritise yourself and your peace of mind above all else. Conserve your energy and pick your battles based on what your non-negotiables are."

A recurring point that all of them seemed to make was that there’s strength in numbers. Build a tribe around you of people who share ideas and principles similar to your own. If you must engage, the tone of your speech and the way you put your point across make a massive difference in how it is perceived. But above everything else, you have to prioritise your own mental health, because nothing is worth more than your peace of mind.

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