Why Are We Friends?

A Conversation Between a Progressive and a Conservative

Yes, we can be friends with people who see the world differently from us. Two such friends share how we can disagree agreeably and live out the pluralism our society needs as an antidote to so much polarization.

A protester in Washington, D.C., at the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, August 28, 2020. (Steve Sanchez Photos / Shutterstock)

Farhat Popal and Chris Walsh worked together for several years on women's advancement at the Bush Institute. They frequently discussed their political, cultural, and religious differences during conversations, walks, and lunches, all trying to learn more about their views of the world. They have maintained that friendship now that Popal serves as a federal contractor working with the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, while Walsh is Deputy Director of Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Institute. 

In this Catalyst exchange, the pair explain how they have been able to work through their conflicting beliefs. Popal, a Muslim born in Afghanistan, considers herself a progressive. Walsh, a Catholic reared in Massachusetts, considers himself a conservative. Yet they each share a deep commitment to the dignity of every individual and how that belief is key to resolving some of America’s polarization. The interview below expresses their own views and has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris: It’s great to chat with you, Farhat. This is a little different because we're doing this for a public audience and are going to explore why we're friends. You are from the West Coast, I'm from the East Coast. You grew up in San Diego, I grew up in Massachusetts. I'm more conservative and you're more progressive. You were born in Afghanistan and came to this country later. I was born in the United States. You're Muslim and I'm Catholic. Yet this all seems to work. Why?

Farhat: We fundamentally respect each other and think that the other person is a compassionate human being that cares about the world and about other people. That makes us friends on a very deep level and creates a foundation where we know the other person always has good intentions. When you recognize that, it's almost impossible to have hurtful arguments.

We fundamentally respect each other and think that the other person is a compassionate human being that cares about the world and about other people.

Chris: Everything you just said changes how we treat the other person when we're in disagreement. I would like to probe something based on that shared foundation. Because I think conservatives sometimes stereotype progressives or liberals as not caring as deeply about things like family or religion. Yet here you are, Farhat, with a deep commitment to your family and faith.

You have sacrificed so much for your family to make sure that they're happy and have built a successful new life in a new country. Let’s be honest, that is a scary thing. You make them proud.

Then obviously, there is your commitment to your faith. I'm sure that has informed your values and how you live your life, which might be surprising to people who have a stereotypical view of people on the left.

You also have a deep respect for your culture and where you came from in Afghanistan. You've always appreciated that culture, that past, that legacy. Some might argue that is a conservative trait, but I think it's more of a human value.

Farhat: Something that has always been important to me when talking about faith is thinking about it not in terms of our specific belief systems, but more so thinking of faith as belief in something bigger than ourselves. That focus combats a human inclination to be selfish.

We have a shared understanding of belief as being something bigger than yourself.

The way that you and I have always talked about faith has never been, "I'm right, and everyone else is wrong." Or "My faith is the right faith." We have a shared understanding of belief as being something bigger than yourself. It means you care for your neighbor. It means that you are kind to everyone around you, no matter who they are. It means that you try to go out of your way to help others when needed.

Chris: Well, let's get to where we disagree because I think that's what people really want to know.

Farhat: Drama.

Chris: Exactly. We do disagree on some big issues where, unfortunately, too many people believe that disagreement makes it impossible to be in a friendship or a relationship. A big one is the debate around reproductive rights. That's something where we don’t see eye to eye.

I think all human beings have an inherent dignity and a fundamental right to live. Thomas Jefferson notes this at the top of the Declaration of Independence. That means everyone, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society – for example: the poor, people with disabilities, seniors, refugees, and, in my view, unborn children.

Many on both sides acknowledge that we’re talking about a distinct life when it comes to the unborn even though there is disagreement on when that life becomes a human being. This is a complex issue, though, and many women feel they’re being marginalized.

As pro-lifers, we need to be better about encouraging policies that support women generally and families raising young children. But nothing gets solved by misrepresenting both sides’ views on this issue in efforts to demonize them. 

Farhat: I am pro-choice because I view reproductive rights as both part of fundamental human rights for women and the right to health care. Empirical evidence shows that those rights contribute to immeasurable progress for women – in access to educational opportunities, economic mobility, civic and political leadership, and so much more. 

Rather than framing the discussion from the perspective of the impact of taking those rights away, folks on the left might have more success in focusing on the positive impact that reproductive rights have for families and society overall. For example, in children's access to safe and secure lives that are filled with opportunities they may not have had otherwise, and in the many benefits that society reaps – such as economic gains from women's participation in the workforce – as a result of women's access to health care and reproductive rights.

Chris: I hope that people come away from this conversation and say, "These people disagree on a really big issue, and they may never agree. Yet they are talking to each other like human beings.”

If you're looking to persuade or talk to someone about an issue, you don't start by calling them a “monster.” Or you don't necessarily start a conversation by immediately diving into an issue because you may not fully understand that person’s background.

If you're looking to persuade or talk to someone about an issue, you don't start by calling them a "monster." 

Farhat, let’s take you as an example. You’ve done tremendous work helping the Afghan immigrant community in San Diego. Through your previous role as the City of San Diego’s Immigrant Affairs Manager, you made sure they know that they are human beings deserving of compassion and care when nobody else, or very few people, might offer that to them. That's something special.

If we’re going to talk about a pro-life mentality, that’s what you exemplify in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society. That's the common ground where I can admire and appreciate your approach to supporting life. And that's the area where we should be connecting. People who share my pro-life beliefs should see that and say, "Yes, that's where we start building the bridge."

Farhat: I have not done nearly as much as I should. But I am so grateful for your words.

It’s more than rejecting the labeling of someone as a “monster.” It's also not using extreme language that is exclusionary, that uses words like "always” or “never.” It provides more space than that. It’s key for having these conversations.

Also, be a compassionate listener instead of constantly thinking about, "How am I going to respond to that point?" Don’t be a lawyer about a subject. None of this has to be adversarial. I worry that we have gotten to a point where every conversation is inherently adversarial. Talk to each other as people, not as someone representing a specific issue or a specific point on an issue. That is dehumanizing.

Talk to each other as people, not as someone representing a specific issue or a specific point on an issue. That is dehumanizing.

Chris: Think of all the controversial issues out there. How do you get things done in a diverse, continental, pluralistic democracy if your small group is going to demonize the others who you need to get onboard to accomplish something?

So, this approach is also practical. We have to be able to negotiate. Both of us may come away somewhat unhappy with what is decided, but some incremental bit of progress is being made. You’re also building a relationship and a connection where maybe you can go a little bit further next time. Or the next generation goes a little bit further next time.

We have to be able to negotiate. Both of us may come away somewhat unhappy with what is decided, but some incremental bit of progress is being made. 

I understand that may not be satisfying for some who want change right now. But the alternative is something that both of us would be horrified to see, which is violence as a way to solve our challenges. That’s not a door we want to open.

Farhat: If we don't correct our course, that is a real risk. By using dehumanizing language, by excluding people that we disagree with from very important conversations, or even just from how we view the United States, my fear is that people will end up only speaking with and seeking to connect with people from their own self-identified groups. And we're not going to do the work of building bridges, of making connections with people who are not like us, however we choose to define that.

This is going to sound cheesy, but I'm going to say it anyway. If we look at everybody in the United States as our neighbor, it becomes very hard to wish ill upon them. That person becomes part of your community, your fellow American. They want the same things you do, whether that is being able to safely send their kids to school or put food on the table. We share these as human beings who are part of a community, part of a country.

If we look at everybody in the United States as our neighbor, it becomes very hard to wish ill upon them. 

I don't know why that's difficult. I am frustrated at our tendency to dehumanize each other. That leads down a very dark path.

Chris: That’s not cheesy at all. Apply what you just said to your own neighborhood where you live. Or if you're in an apartment, the people who live directly next door to you. It's not in your interest to have a tense or adversarial relationship with them.

I often think about something that Cass Sunstein came up with called the “Law of Group Polarization.” He studied how groups of people who believe the same thing and never get challenged become radicalized. That's true on the right or left.

This idea of engaging with people who think differently, who have different backgrounds than you should be a priority. In essence, build bigger “neighborhoods” with people from different backgrounds.

Farhat: Who wouldn't want that? Who wouldn't want that richness in their life? I've shared this with friends since moving back to California. But often people will ask me, "Oh, you lived in Texas. What was that like?" And my response is always, "I am so grateful for the experience of having lived in a state that I never thought I would live in."

I'm so grateful for the experiences I had, for the people that I met, for how much my own mind and perspective were opened because of that. From living in Dallas, to meeting Texans, to being a progressive working at a center-right institution, I learned so much from the diversity and the plethora of experiences and backgrounds that people came from.

Chris: It’s great you had those experiences. Living and building relationships with people of different ideological views helps us recognize they’re not evil. We may think they’re wrong, but not evil. There's a big difference between believing someone is wrong and believing someone is evil. More Americans must make that distinction.

On another matter, we worked together during a turbulent time in our country's history, from the stress placed on people through COVID, through the murder of George Floyd, to the ensuing anger and frustration around racial injustice and debates about equity and equality.

Correct me if I'm not characterizing this right, but you were more pessimistic on how things were going in our country regarding equity and racial justice. And I was more optimistic about the trajectory of racial equality. We both agreed that there was a problem and that our nation had to address this problem.

Without getting into the details of that debate, it showed me why it's so important to have friends or someone you can talk with who comes from a different background and experience. It reminds us that we potentially live different lives as people, depending upon our region, our ethnicity, our ages.

... it showed me why it's so important to have friends or someone you can talk with who comes from a different background and experience. It reminds us that we potentially live different lives as people, depending upon our region, our ethnicity, our ages.

Being a white guy, coming from a middle-class family, I had different experiences than people who may have been a different color than me, who came from a different socioeconomic background. You have always helped me realize that I need to think outside myself, and that I need to value the opinion of someone who has lived different experiences than me. There's value in doing that. If I want to get to solutions, I need to consider those experiences.

It may not be satisfying to someone who disagrees with me if I don’t come away completely convinced of their argument, but they should know that at least hearing their perspective changes the things I’m considering. That's valuable. How can I refine my views if someone doesn't challenge me, or doesn't question me, or force me to consider an alternative?

It may not be satisfying to someone who disagrees with me if I don’t come away completely convinced of their argument, but they should know that at least hearing their perspective changes the things I’m considering.

Farhat: Ditto - You have always helped me see how important it is to be open and willing to listen, and to do so with compassion because that’s what you do every day in your personal and professional life. It’s just as important for folks on the left to be open-minded and have those conversations and try to think through where is this person coming from? How can we better come to a point of understanding where we can solve problems?

At this point, we're having a hard time solving big problems. Maybe it's because our processes need to change, the way that we go about trying to solve those problems needs to change. That requires sitting down with someone, looking them in the eye and saying, "Okay, tell me more. Tell me more about where you're coming from." And meaning it, really wanting to listen and understand.

That’s not to say that you will truly understand, but you'll be in a better place than at the outset. I almost feel like it's guaranteed that you will have softened a bit by the end of the conversation.

This is not my phrase, but we have a crisis of empathy. Empathy is attempting to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

If you can imagine what it's like to live as a person of color, or to have grown up in Appalachia or various other parts of the country, that helps us all be less arrogant and be humbler in our viewpoints. We all have biases, we all have shortcomings, so we can all be more empathetic, no matter how empathetic we think we are.

We all have biases, we all have shortcomings, so we can all be more empathetic, no matter how empathetic we think we are.

Chris: A common misconception around empathy is that you are surrendering to another viewpoint. I couldn't disagree with that more, because what you're doing is thinking through the different possibilities and how that either adjusts or even strengthens your own viewpoint.

Empathy gives you better footing to engage with those that you're hoping to persuade, or maybe it causes you to course correct for something you had not considered previously. That’s something practical people can do in their own lives to help solve this crisis of contempt and polarization in our country and build better bridges.

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