Agony uncle: Should I date a centrist?
Q: I’ve recently developed a crush on a close friend of many years. On paper they would make a great partner – I find them attractive, we get on well, enjoy each other’s company and have similar interests. But I am holding back from admitting my feelings because, apart from the obvious pitfalls of falling for a friend, I sometimes have serious questions about their politics. They have been involved in social and environmental activism in the past but now they’re older their commitment to radical social change has been overtaken by a centrist ‘realism’ that I find downright irritating at times. They seem to have abandoned hopes of radical progress in favour of a ‘pragmatism’ which manifests in accepting inequalities too easily, whataboutery and failing to consider the impact of their own life choices. But, how much does politics matter in a good partnership? Should I just get over myself?
A: The politics is the easy bit. It isn’t hard to explain why ‘centrist realism’ is a dead-end. Climate breakdown, mass impoverishment, economic depression – centrism cannot solve the radical problems that face us. And there is no ‘realism’ that can meaningfully respond to moments of immense historical change like ours, because historical change by its nature modifies what we assume to be realistic.
But we’re not talking about politics, are we? We’re talking about love. This means we’re talking about the fallible, contradictory repositories in which political ideas are stored – humans. And that’s where it gets difficult.
On one level, it is difficult to imagine you and your close friend keeping an intimate relationship going. How would you relate to them when – upon watching the news together – they say something that makes your blood boil? How can you feel tenderness towards someone that looks at the world as it is and shrugs their shoulders? The common purpose of political solidarity should join a politically engaged couple at the hip.
But solidarity isn’t the same as love. There is something irreducible to the latter which can’t be explained away by working towards political goals. It might be something that only you see in them. It might be their sense of themselves. It might just be the way they treat you. Politics is intelligible because it’s based on verifiable claims about the world. Loving someone stirs something deeper. A psychoanalyst reminds us: ‘If somebody can satisfy you, they can also frustrate you. This means that everybody has to deal with ambivalence. They have to love and hate the person they love – and hate.’
You’re never going to find a partner who perfectly reflects your politics. If you really wanted that, you’d go out with a mirror. What’s more, don’t assume that even if you were ‘on the same side’ you wouldn’t find yourselves arguing over the differences. The hurdles between an anarchist and a Marxist in a relationship could be just as insurmountable as between a conservative and a socialist. Love exists in a dialectical relationship with hate, satisfaction with frustration. They will provide you with both and you to them.
Finally, there’s an unexamined premise in your question: that people don’t change. Your friend has already demonstrated that they can, by moving from radicalism to milquetoast liberalism. There might be another chapter to their lives and you could help them turn the page.
So, should you go for it? I don’t know. But if you do and it gets serious, just remember what really matters: that they know how to 1) cook and 2) deep-clean a bathroom.
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This article is from
the November-December 2020 issue
of New Internationalist.
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