Being friends with someone does not amount to an endorsement of all their actions or ideas. Accepting each other does not require us to accept each other’s politics or perspective. These are not earth-shattering notions.
Last Sunday, comedian Ellen DeGeneres and former President George W. Bush watched the Cowboys-Packers football game together in the owner’s suite. That caused some consternation, as DeGeneres addressed in a Tuesday segment on her show.
“Here’s the thing: I’m friends with George Bush,” DeGeneres explained in her on-air response to the criticism. “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK.”
It’s more than OK. We would argue it’s necessary to surround yourself with people who don’t share the same perspectives, positions and experiences. Such relationships challenge our beliefs and can help us grow, change and sharpen our ideas.
DeGeneres also urged people to be kind to each other, even those with whom they disagree.
“When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone,” she said.
DeGeneres has turned being nice into a brand — and that’s not a bad message to amplify. But while her appeal to kindness and being friends with those who have differing views is a good reminder, it also should not be used as a shield from thoughtful criticism and substantive disagreement.
Be kind, yes. But also don’t shy away from difficult and necessary conversations — or critiques — in deference to kindness.
The friendship of Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia offers a useful roadmap here. Though they were frequent and forceful judicial adversaries, sparring over some of the most consequential issues facing our country, they nevertheless shared a mutual respect and affection for each other.
Ginsburg, speaking at Scalia’s memorial service in 2016, recounted his response when asked “how we could be friends given our disagreement on lots of things.”
“And Justice Scalia answered, ‘I attack ideas, I don’t attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas,’” Ginsburg said, to laughter from those in attendance.
She also shared a personal moment between the two justices at a particularly polarized and weighty moment for the court and for the country: the Bush v. Gore case and the 2000 presidential election.
“No surprise, Justice Scalia and I were opposite sides. The court did the right thing; he had no doubt. I disagreed, and explained why in a dissenting opinion,” Ginsburg said. “Around 9 p.m. the telephone — my direct line — rang. It was Justice Scalia. He didn’t say, ‘Get over it.’ Instead, he asked, ‘Ruth, why are you still at the court? Go home and take a hot bath.’ Good advice I probably followed.”
The point being, even in the midst of such a critical debate fraught with contention, the justices did not allow their firmly held beliefs and positions to obscure their appreciation for each other’s humanity.
“I will miss the challenges and the laughter he provoked, his pungent, eminently quotable opinions, so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp,” Ginsburg continued in her remarks at Scalia’s memorial, appreciating the power of Scalia’s words even when she likely disagreed with many of them.
The Justices did not shy from their starkly different ideologies. They embraced and challenged those differences, and each other, and were stronger because of it. That is something all of us should aim for in our friendships.