Cognitive Dissonance and Friendship in a Politically-Divided World
When your best friend changes beyond recognition, any attempt to reconcile a sense of loyalty with your own fundamental values becomes an increasingly challenging task
It was the torrid summer of 2003. As thermometers across Europe displayed record temperatures, I found myself at my grandparents’ seaside house, dragged on a holiday I didn’t want to be on. The place was beautiful, the sea wallowing in its endless blue and the scent of oleander overwhelming the air, but I missed home. I didn’t have any friends here. I’d supposedly visited the place once as a toddler, but it wasn’t familiar to me. At only six years old, it was the first time I truly felt lonely.
So I spent most of my hours by the beach, immersing myself in one of my countless drawings. It gave me a sense of escape, crafting my very own make-believe cities and channelling all of my dreams into worn-out notebooks. Until one day, as I was finishing off my latest creation, I heard a voice from over my shoulder.
“Wow, they’re beautiful! You’re really good!”
I turned around to see a girl, about my age, holding a half-melted ice lolly in one hand and a battered air mattress in the other. She had a warm, inviting smile, which spoke for her without the need to say a word. Before I even had time to thank her, she’d already persuaded me to leave the pen and paper behind.
Within the afternoon, we had already built a sandcastle, taken multiple dips in the sea, and gone jellyfish-hunting on her little air mattress which barely supported the weight of both of us. From then on on we’d meet together everyday, expanding on our adventures, feeling like invincible pirates conquering the Mediterranean with that half-deflated mattress and a fishing net at hand. Each time the sun set on the Italian Riviera, we would escape our grandparents’ clutches to roam around the medieval village, ice cream in hand, playing hide-and-seek and discovering ill-lit alleyways. Alas, the first falling leaves brought an end to it all. No mobile phones or Facebook, just an address scribbled on a ripped piece of A4, and with a bittersweet smile we departed with the knowledge that the next eleven months were nothing but an interruption to our quests.
Year on year, I awaited August with anticipation. We’d send the occasional handwritten letter over the winter months, lamenting the boredom of school and eagerly looking forward to the summer holidays, but we never made arrangements or guarantees. We just knew we’d meet, and somehow we always managed to bump into each other — outside the ice cream parlour, sweating in the meandering queue; at the kiosk, buying my grandfather’s newspaper; or simply by the beach, where we’d make a sprint for the waves before we’d even managed to finish a sentence.
As we grew, our conversations inevitably matured alongside us. From naive musings and preteen gossip on who-kissed-who, adolescence brought in more serious topics: the value of life; sexuality; death; our purpose on the planet. By that point in time the realm of social media had inevitably taken over, and we gave in to Facebook messenger as a way to bridge the thousand-mile gap between London and Northern Italy. Joyous and painful moments were shared across pixels, where we would comfort each other when the time was needed. From conquering the sea with an air mattress and fishing net, we were now attempting to vanquish our angst, wading through those uncomfortable teenage days.
And then one summer, in the myriad of our infinite discussions, came a line I’d never expected to hear from her. It was by that time that the refugee crisis was in full swing and populist leaders were making their mark on airwaves worldwide, but I still couldn’t believe she would be the one to parrot such nationalist arguments.
“All these immigrants are coming to our country, either stealing our jobs or turning into criminals, and we’re paying for them to stay! It’s time for Italy to put Italians first!”
As taken aback as I was, I initially brushed it off. Yes, it was a view I found myself at complete odds with. But what friendship exists without disagreement? How many times had we engaged in heated debates on everything from the most banal to the profoundest of issues? Yet as soon as I took the plane to go home, little could prepare me for what would happen next.
Anger. Every day, with each Facebook post came an increasing torrent of fire, furious and unforgiving, cold and iridescent at once. Shares upon shares of articles spewing hate, blaming refugees, scapegoating immigrants, all loaded with an explosive rhetoric which seemed irrepressible. The targets extended beyond this of course — by a certain point, it became anyone who was deemed to be a “peril” to Western civilisation. “They’re taking our jobs, destroying our culture, threatening our family values,” the daily mantra went. Likes were bestowed to right-wing pages, jingoistic memes asserting the inherent superiority of Italian culture, and expletive-laden viral jokes mocking our current political situation with a quasi-sadistic sense of humour.
My childhood friend was in pain, something she’d told me herself, but for the first time I didn’t know how to console her. Whenever I tried to suggest that scapegoating people wouldn’t resolve her problems, I became the mysterious oppressor. “You’re just like all the others. You don’t understand.” With time, her message went further and further. At one point, my curiosity took the better of me, and I was horrified to find Forza Nuova, an ultranationalist, neo-Fascist party among the pages she was following. A brick wall had been formed between us, one which countless kind messages and smile emojis could not overcome.
Friendship has been taking an especially heavy toll in the last few years. We are in the midst of a politically-divided world, with everything from Brexit to Trump standing as the tip to an infinitely complex iceberg. Politics today is no longer a debate on policy or minutiae, as it now often calls into question the deepest, most fundamental parts of our moral belief systems. Long-lasting friendships, romantic relationships and family bonds have been torn apart within this polarised climate. The only lifeboat to it all seems to be living in a perennial state of cognitive dissonance — managing to love a person while somehow overlooking the vast discrepancy in political views.
As the far-right has returned to the mainstream in the most garish of ways, it has opened Pandora’s box to bring out some of the ugliest sides within us. It channels people’s pain, hopelessness, desperation into an unyielding hatred, turning the elusive “other” into the punching bag we never had. If humans were springs, it stretches us out to a point of no-return, leaving an indelible scar even in those who end up renouncing these views. The most insidious power of a far-right ideology is the effect it has on the mind — changing people beyond recognition. The person I see today, rabidly channelling her energies into such acrimonious words, is not the one I grew to know. How could someone so generous and compassionate reduce herself to the most odious of arguments? I tried in my time to understand where she was coming from, but as much as I comprehended the emotions behind it all, I could never sympathise with the point where it ended up.
In life, I crave for unity, desire for peace, wish for the eternal survival of friendship. But at the same time, I cannot endorse those whose views go into direct contrast with these fundamental principles. Dialogue and debate, yes. But when each discussion is closed off with an insurmountable barrier, what option are we left with? It sometimes feels as if we are faced with a choice between betraying our friends on the one hand, and our values on the other. Cognitive dissonance can work insofar as we limit ourselves to sending birthday messages and New Years’ wishes, but how can we ever have a genuine friendship when we cannot see eye-to-eye on our intrinsic beliefs?
Regrettably, there is no happy ending to this piece. There is no magical remedy to the gaping hole which these times have drilled into our deepest platonic (and even romantic) bonds. Perhaps, if there’s anything positive to have come out of our hostile political climate, it’s been the way in which it has forced us to reflect on what we value most in life.
Nearly sixteen years have gone by, and in the memory of the kind-hearted person I once knew and cherished, I tried for a while to adhere to the façade of our withered friendship. I continued to write birthday messages, like Instagram photos, and send the odd smiley face when the occasion arose. As of now, I still wish that one day we’ll be able to share the same core values we used to have. But as it currently stands, there’s no denying the fact that our friendship lies bare as a hollow, cracked shell. The only thing I can do to be loyal to whatever bond we once had is to keep true to myself and my principles, standing up against the insidious by-products of our current political turmoil, and working alongside all those who seek to reveal Fascism for what it is — not now, and never at any point in time, a legitimate ideology, but a disease which preys on our deepest fears. If this is the current “quest” ahead of us, then in honour of our friendship, I’ll have to take that air mattress and fishing net by myself.