Ask A Friend

by Tom Mandel | 11/19/08 5:03am

Not surprisingly, the presidential election permeated every aspect of our lives in the weeks leading up to it. Students shirked their homework to phone-bank, canvass or just watch hilarious videos of Tina Fey dressed up as Sarah Palin. Alice Zhao '12's recent column ("Red States, Blue States," Nov. 14) certainly reflects the level of activity and involvement that we have in our political system. Anybody looking outside their window on campus right after the results were announced would attest to this: Hordes of Obama supporters screamed and ran over the sidewalks that they had chalked with political messages just hours earlier.

While we might not be as intense about our political activities as our activist predecessors of the '60s and '70s, nobody can doubt that our generation is politically involved. Zhao uses the example of students going up to complete strangers in dining halls to engage them in political discussion about who they support and what issues are important to them. She also uses the example of dinnertime political discussion at home to demonstrate our commitment to open conversation. There is one group, however, with whom we seem to avoid talking about politics: our friends and peers.

This is the huge exception to our generation's political activity. A stigma exists against actually discussing political issues with our peers, as this discussion can often become awkward and divisive. Why is it that student volunteers will speak much more vehemently about politics to a stranger on the phone or to a stranger in a dining hall than they will to some of their closest friends? Because we see a stranger as a potential blank slate; even though he almost certainly already has political leanings, there always seems to be that tiny chance that we've discovered one of the only undecided voters left in America.

This isn't to say that politics never comes up between friends. I went to the polls with a couple of friends and, later that night, watched the election with a group of them. We talked about politics on our way to and from the polls and while we were watching the returns, but we didn't really talk about the issues. We didn't talk about Sarah Palin's foreign policy exposure, but rather about whether or not she would write a book detailing her experiences if she lost. (I'm still waiting on that one.) We didn't talk about Barack Obama's relative lack of experience in Washington, but rather about which news channel he was watching for his election results.

Very rarely, if ever, did we actually stop to ask each other what we thought about the issues at hand: war, the economy, abortion, etc. I have a general idea where on the political spectrum my friends lie and whom they voted for, but I really couldn't tell you how each of them feels about the specifics of the Iraq war. We were all involved enough to vote and some of us even volunteered in some capacity. We phone-banked and discussed our candidate of choice's positions on the important issues, but we didn't talk about it with the people with whom we hold the most sway: our friends.

Are we afraid of offending those with whom we are closest? Obnoxious political conversation that attacks one's belief system is considered rude, as it should be. But shouldn't simple political discussion be encouraged? We're so afraid of disagreeing with a friend of ours about a political issue and offending them -- or being offended ourselves -- that we avoid the subject altogether and don't even ask where they stand.

Ask some friends where they stand on some of the most important issues. It's more than probable that, in asking this, we won't change their minds about anything. But we don't need to change their minds. Maybe we can just have a conversation with our friends about how they feel and simply accept it instead of giving into the temptation to try to force our own beliefs on them. I mean, the next presidential election is as far away from now as it can possibly be. We should take advantage of this chance to get to know our peers.