The cruel new world of the past twelve months has loosened the tongues of my circle, which is confronting, and raises the question, can you be friends with a racist?
It is summer in Amsterdam. We’ve had rain and 15 degree temperatures for weeks, but now it is early in the evening and the sun is shining. Because of the rarity of the event, everybody has dragged chairs outside and footpaths are full of people having a drink. In my absence, Holland has moved past hipsterdom. Elderflower juice is normal now, as is beetroot wine and wild peach Bellini. On every street corner, electric cars are charging, it has become illegal for shops to give out plastic bags and cloth nappies are the standard choice for new parents.
We are having our trendy drinks overlooking one of the canals, my friends and I. Around us, at least five languages are spoken. These people are not tourists, though, but ex-pats. The city is full of them: Japanese, Americans, Columbians, French and whoever else has been sent by his or her company to spend a few years in the centre of Europe. Amsterdam has been attracting foreign money since the 1700s, but after the Brexit, businesses are relocating in their dozens. The children in my family think nothing of having classmates from ten different countries in the same schoolroom. This is multiculturalism, but not necessarily as we know it. More the high-prized version of it, the one that comes with big houses paid for by the boss and relocation allowances.
Even so, Amsterdam, like any other city in the world at the moment, is suffering from verbal incontinence. Because of what has happened in the world over the last year or so (Trump, Brexit, ISIS, public violence), onetime restraints have been abandoned. It has become normal again to talk about people’s race, religious background, and even gender in derogatory terms. All the clichés are back too, like we’ve entered into a state of collective amnesia. “Niggers” are lazy and dumb, “the Jews” own the world and are out to get us, “all Muslims” want to slice our throats, “gooks” are after “our women” and “feminists” want to cut your dick off. It is like we’ve been censoring ourselves for years, waiting for an opportunity to say what we really think. So it comes out like diarrhoea: easy and smelly and sticking to our cheeks.
One of the benefits of this new openness, is that we now know exactly who thinks what. And that has consequences we are discussing, sipping our beetroot wines this evening. Now the cards are on the table, who can we still be friends with? Or, to take one step back: can a racist friend still be a friend? What do we accept in our nearest and dearest, and where are the limits?
They have broken the ties that bind, put distance where closeness is the aim. Not merely because you politically disagree, but because you feel emotionally and morally compromised, even a little ashamed to be associated with the person at the same table as you.
Predictably it proves to be an emotive topic. I immediately show my age by revealing my number one rule for friendship: if I think I can’t trust you enough to ask you to hide me in your house when “they” come for me, you can’t be my friend. A close acquaintance, sure, but not a friend. It is a rule my father used in WWII, one that became pertinent again when my Chilean friends had to seek cover from Pinochet’s henchmen and is now relevant once more in Syria, Turkey and Russia. It is a friendship that only has one question attached to it: can I trust you with my life? And do I want to be entrusted with yours? Obviously, my real friends are few and far between. Loads of mates that I try to choose wisely, though, and have less and less patience with. For me, racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny are a problem for a number of reasons, both politically and morally. But maybe the most important reason is that they betray stupidity and mental laziness. If you think that groups of people can be held responsible for all the evil in the world, you are not thinking. And horrible things do not usually happen when people make considered choices, but rather when they don’t and let themselves be led.
One of my companions smiles indulgently at me. I can see her think: “Good luck with that. That kind of severity can make you very lonely.” And she is right, of course. But when she tries to explain the laws that govern her relationships, in the end, they are no less strict. For her, it is about mutuality, she says. Do I like you and do you like me? Do we have things in common that bind us together? Do we enjoy having a laugh, a drink, a meal, going to a movie? Politics barely comes into that, she says, until she realises that actually it does. Because it is difficult to feel an affinity with somebody who wants to evict all foreigners. In expressing that opinion they have broken the ties that bind, have put distance where closeness is the aim. Not merely because you politically disagree, but because you feel emotionally and morally compromised, even a little ashamed to be associated with the person at the same table as you.
Another one of my discussion partners has just come back from a year in the Middle East. It has not been easy, living in a place where nothing worked the way he was used to. We grew up in Holland, the country that makes most of its money from organisation and prep. But having showers without water and shops without food has given him a new rule for friendship: if you whinge without taking control and doing something about it, you’re out. It is negativity that drives him crazy in people, especially the “they suck” version of it, that finds fault in everything that everybody else does. Again, he first maintains that he does not un-friend people because of their political opinions, but after a while, he starts to realise that he does so all the time. That colleague who keeps complaining about their female boss? He makes sure to avoid him at the water cooler. The childhood pal who now runs a rightwing blog? He hasn’t called him for months.
So here we are, in a brave new world, where freedom of expression means you can offend anybody at any time. Words are no longer safely tucked away in the realms of politics, though. Opinions, especially ones that have the capacity to cause damage, have consequences for friendships too. You, me, my mates in the fading light of a tentative Dutch summer, we are connected by how we view ourselves and other people. The changing world also changes something between us.
For better or for worse.