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Friendship > Politics

In the heat of 2020, I came to believe that ‘justice’ meant more than anything else. Even my best friend.

It’s hard to know what the most difficult part of the cultural reset (or the realignment or the reckoning or whatever we’re calling the past three years) has been. Maybe it’s the jobs unfairly lost or the reputations unfairly maligned. Maybe it’s the institutions that have been sapped of trust. I could make a strong argument that the worst thing of all has been the damage done to our relationships. 

I’ve heard from and talked to so many people on both sides of this equation: those who have been ostracized for their wrongthinking and those who did the ostracizing.

Few people admit they were wrong to turn their backs on friends over a difference of opinion. Even fewer ever make amends. The number willing to do so publicly is infinitesimal. 

Below is one of those rare stories. It’s by Maya Rackoff, who just finished her first year at Brown. It’s about friendship, and falling out, and making things right. And it’s about carrying that experience into the moment when you suddenly find yourself on the opposite side of that equation. 

I’m thrilled that Maya is going to be one of our inaugural Common Sense interns this summer.

— BW

I was approaching the end of my junior year when George Floyd’s murder sparked a wave of protests across the country. The administration at my high school in the Bronx organized assemblies and meetings meant to provide emotional support. In all of my classes, including physics and calculus, my teachers took time to talk about systemic racism in America. I thought that was appropriate considering that we all needed to wake up to the ways in which racism had seeped into everything and everyone. 

Everyone seemed on board: administrators expressed solidarity with Black Lives Matter. My history teacher told our class that “nothing had changed since the era of Jim Crow.” My classmates nodded along. I nodded along, too—and I meant it. I felt ashamed of the role I was told I had played in upholding a system of white supremacy.

I attended protests. I took the train alone from my apartment to Times Square and Union Square and Washington Square Park, joining thousands of others. I watched CNN’s and MSNBC’s coverage religiously. I embraced the BLM slogans and ignored the violence that accompanied some of the protests. I even dismissed the antisemitism that seemed to be entangled in some of BLM’s statements. To me, anyone who didn’t buy into the movement wholeheartedly was the problem. Why couldn’t they get over their own racism and get on board? 

I had grown up in a family where we were taught to respect differences of opinion. My mother, a doctor, and my father, who had immigrated to the United States from South Africa, had instilled in me a value for critical, independent thinking. Our Shabbat dinner table was always a place of political and intellectual debate. But that summer, it was impossible to do anything but feel contempt for those who disagreed with me. 

One of the people who was on the other side of the divide—or so I thought—was my best friend. 

She’d been raised in a more conservative household than mine, but never before had politics interfered in our friendship. That summer, though, racial politics had a way of hanging over every interaction and relationship—including ours. I had a hard time accepting that she could possibly have a problem with the woke ideology that I had subscribed to—that everyone I knew had subscribed to. Had I misjudged her? Was she actually a bad person? When she said that most, but not all, police officers were good people, I yelled at her. I said it was irrelevant that not all police were pigs. Anybody who expressed skepticism of the movement and its logic was obviously a racist. We didn’t speak for a time.

Months later, my friend, who went to a different school than I did, got in trouble. It began with a deep, unsettling feeling she had that the teachers and administrators at her school had shifted from educating to indoctrinating students. It wasn’t just that they were so sure about what they believed. It was that they refused to entertain any viewpoints that diverged in the slightest from the party line. She thought that it was scary, with administrators and teachers and students on the lookout for anyone who made a mistake.

Then, there was an incident: one of her classmates recorded two other boys from the school hurling a slur at a gay couple walking down a New York City street. They apparently were trying to be funny, but nothing about it was. The video got around, and both students involved were expelled. There were no conversations with her classmates. They had no opportunity to repent. 

My friend thought that the punishment was an inappropriate way to address the boys’ mistake. She thought that the expulsions did not promote learning and would not help the community move forward. So she emailed the administrators. In her email, she questioned “if the punishment fits the transgression and the message being provided to both current and future graduates.” 

The email went on: “If all [the school] does is weed out kids that don’t fit our ‘perfect’ model, then we cease being a community and should be seen as a zero-tolerance corporation.” She went on to talk about the “need to help those who have fallen, educate those who have faulted, and be both empathetic and sympathetic to those who have transgressed. Throw the stone if you feel you are without fault.” She was asking for a little understanding—a little grace.

Accidentally, she included a student in her email chain, and it wasn’t long before the email had been leaked to the entire student body. Judgment was swift. Her friends stopped talking to her. The headmaster chastised her in a private meeting. Her lacrosse coach kicked her off the team. Her presence, her coach told her, “was too upsetting to the girls.” She was kicked out of group chats and excluded from social events. She was being bullied by everyone. If you didn’t bully her with sufficient fervor, you, too, might become a pariah.

Over the last two months of school, she called me crying most days.

That was when all my previous disagreements with her gave way to a new anger—the anger I felt on her behalf. Before I had been ashamed that I was complicit in a racist system. Now, I was ashamed at how easily I’d given in to a worldview that seemed to me increasingly conformist and intolerant. I wondered how I could have allowed minor differences of opinion to get in the way of our friendship. 

Do certain extreme differences of opinion cross irreconcilable moral boundaries? Yes. But that wasn’t the case here. My friend was not a racist or a bigot. She was kind and selfless. She was with me at my father’s funeral and supported me through my grief. She was a good person and I knew it. Everything else was beside the point.

I apologized to my best friend for my own intolerance. She forgave me immediately. It wasn’t that I regretted many of the slogans I shouted that summer—I still believe America has a long way to go to make up for past injustices and present racism. And I don’t believe it is ever acceptable to hurl slurs. People who do this should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. But I also think that my friend was on the better side of wisdom when she argued for second chances and the opportunity to learn and repent. 

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The next year, we started college. It didn’t take long for me to get a taste of what my friend had already lived through.

At the beginning of my freshman year, the Brown Political Review, an undergraduate political journal, made me one of their “interviewers”—a big honor.  I scored an interview with Megyn Kelly. We spoke about identity politics, academic censorship, and America’s political divide—all topics that I thought would be of interest to the student body. 

“People have decided to obsess over their skin color, their heritage, their sexual identity, their gender identity,” Kelly told me, “because we are in the blessed period of not fighting a world war, of not having undergone a terrorist attack with 3,000 people were killed in front of our very eyes. We have this beautiful opportunity to devote our energy elsewhere, and people have decided to create problems out of things we could celebrate.” 

Given the political climate, it was a provocative thing to say, especially at Brown. But also, I thought, a valid point. 

Anyway, after I filed my piece, the editors told me that Megyn Kelly was a racist and a sexist and didn’t deserve a platform on BPR. (Never mind that a former Fox News host can’t really be elevated or marginalized by a college publication with a readership in the low thousands.) They claimed her comments would have offended Martin Luther King, and they expressed concern that they would incite a controversy. 

They went on to say that my interview was not up to BPR standards. Apparently, I hadn’t asked enough follow-up questions, and I’d expressed strong bias: after Kelly said something about Glenn Loury, the prominent Brown economist who was also apparently problematic because he wasn’t progressive, I said I’d love to interview him, too. 

My article not getting published wasn’t the end of the world. Nor was my friend missing out on her senior year on the lacrosse team. But it was wrong. It was wrong that my interview was held to a different standard than interviews with left-wing subjects, and it was wrong that my friend was called a racist for voicing her opinion. Worst of all were the people who should have known better—including plenty of adults—and let it happen, turned a blind eye, or waded in. They were scared like all the students were scared.

I now consider it a blessing that my best friend and I have different opinions. I think that the American policing system needs more reform than she does. I love Brown’s study-whatever-you-want, no-graduation-requirements curriculum, whereas she prefers more traditional, structured learning. We talk about these disagreements and we’re better thinkers and better friends for it. Among so many other things, she has taught me the importance of resisting the tide. I’ve taught her . . . something, I hope.

The adults in charge too often deprive us of one of the most important human experiences: engaging with smart, thoughtful people who don’t see the world the way we do. That’s something we used to value deeply. It was assumed to be a necessary step in teaching young people how to think critically and how to govern themselves. How are we going to govern ourselves—to say nothing of our country—without it?

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