Where is the line between being kind and being complicit?
This week, a photograph and subsequent video of Ellen DeGeneres has been all over my Facebook feed. Each time I see a friend share it with hearts in their eyes, I feel a bit more discomfort. In the video, Ellen says:
Here’s the thing, I’m friends with George Bush. 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 that we’re all different. Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything, doesn’t mean that I’m not gonna be friends with them. 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.
Of course, on a fundamental level, I agree that we should all strive to be kind to each other. Still, something about the video bothered me, and after thinking about it, I realized that it was the underlying current of judgement.
I have an issue with a celebrity’s opinion being used to spread the idea that standing for your values by choosing not to be friends with certain people is wrong.
It’s really not my business if Ellen wants to be friends with George. That’s her life, her choice, and if she’s comfortable with it, that’s fine. What I do have an issue with is that the way the video is being passed around implies that standing for your values by choosing not to be friends with certain people is wrong. The shares and messages about how being kind is the end-all-be-all feel a like a whole lot of people tsk-tsking any of us who have chosen our values and morals over ignoring bigotry, hatred, and criminal actions.
It is important to recognize that there’s a difference between being kind and being friends with somebody. There’s a difference between behaving in a polite and civil matter, and ignoring the reality that someone’s basic beliefs diminish other human beings. Expecting people to ignore the fact that someone has harmed other people in the name of “being kind to all” is unfair and unreasonable.
I used to see memes like the one to the left about being friends with people with different beliefs and think, yes, of course. The problem is that when you put someone in front of me who supports Kavanaugh or Bush or Trump, you’re putting people in front of me who support racism, child imprisonment, mocking disabled people and kids, endorsement of sexual assault, and more. How am I supposed to reconcile your comfort with those things with you supporting and caring for me as a human being? How do I trust that I won’t be the next one whose rights you think it’s okay to trample?
Disagreeing about who the best band was at Lollapalooza is worlds away from disagreeing about whether immigrant families should be separated. Fighting about whether the new Mary Poppins was actually a good movie is hugely different than fighting about whether people deserve less rights because of their gender or sexuality.
At some point, it becomes less a disagreement and more a fundamental difference in beliefs about human rights. That’s where the line is for me. That’s why I can’t look past it if someone says they support Trump. That guy hates women, hates brown people, hates poor people, and is actively cruel to all of them. He steps all over anyone and everyone to get what he wants, and you’re saying that’s okay with you.
I keep wondering what Ellen DeGeneres should have done this weekend at the football game. Perhaps she should have taken what was intended to be a good day into a bad one for everyone around her.
And she’s right. What did people expect Ellen to do? Not go to the game? She didn’t even know she was going to be seated next to this guy before she got there. Did people expect her to leave and not enjoy her time there? Or to cause some sort of huge scene? That’s a ridiculous expectation, and placing a burden on someone that they don’t deserve when they’re just trying to enjoy a sporting event. I like that she still had a good time at the game, and I don’t have an issue with being congenial or friendly to someone you’re stuck sitting next to for a few hours.
Friendship and respect are things you earn, not things to be given to anyone who happens to be near me.
That’s not what I’m feeling uncomfortable about. My discomfort is with the feeling that people are using this video to tell me, and people like me, that if we stand up for our beliefs, we are not being kind. Friendship and respect are things you earn, not things to be given to anyone who happens to be near me.
There has to be a line between kindness and complacency, or worse, complicity. There has to be a point at which we are allowed to say, I am not going to be cruel to you, but I am not going to pretend that what you’ve done and what you’re doing is okay or dismissable. A friend on Facebook said,
No matter what Ellen says, I’m not going to focus my energy or kindness on people trying to take away body autonomy, or lgbtq rights, or on racists unwilling to change.
I owe them nothing. They need to do work changing their lives before I hang out at a football game with them.
They’re the problem. The problem isn’t my lack of kindness.
How nice are they when black unarmed men keep being murdered and they are debating whether it’s legal to fire people for being gay or talking about putting women in prison for choices that have nothing to do with anyone else outside their family.
Certainly, nobody can argue that it is kind to harm people in the ways that politicians like George Bush and Donald Trump have. Certainly, the emotional labor shouldn’t be on all of us to push past misgivings and pain caused by very real actions. Certainly, the blame should not fall on those of us who choose not to be friends with these people.
Maybe some people, like Ellen, can look past these issues, push them down, and pretend they didn’t happen. I’ve done it before, at work, in professional situations, the ability to compartmentalize can be an asset. It’s a useful skill for moments when you don’t have a choice, like being seated next to someone at a football game.
When this type of rhetoric is shared as the one true way to do things, though? It’s different. Asking me to be friendly to everyone no matter what they’ve done or are doing is unreasonable. I can’t look past it, ignore it, and pretend we’re on equal ground.
If someone has taken actions and has beliefs that make it clear that I’m worth less, and that a lot of other people are worth less, than they are? I don’t think that’s something I need to be particularly kind about. If I ignore that someone has those kinds of beliefs, at what point do I become complicit because I have stayed silent? I’d rather not find out.
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