One of the unfortunate side effects of the Trump presidency is that it has made people forget the awfulness of other world leaders, both past and present. The bar of our expectations has now been set so low, that everyone who isn’t Donald Trump sails over it — regardless of their corruption scandals, drone wars, tax cuts for the wealthy, arms deals with Saudi Arabia, cruel treatment of asylum seekers, and so on.
The rehabilitation of George W. Bush has been perhaps the most alarming example of this phenomenon. Humans have short memories — and they don’t seem to extend back to the 2000s when we thought Bush Jr was the worst that could befall the world. George Bush 2.0 made his debut at John McCain’s funeral by giving a piece of candy to Michelle Obama, an action which apparently absolved him of the murder of a million Iraqis. Since then, we’ve started looking back at the Bush presidency with a sort of rosy nostalgia.
Then last week, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres found herself explaining her friendship with Bush — in a way that Michelle Obama hasn’t been held accountable for, even though she is in the political sphere and Ellen is a comedian. Ellen, whose contribution to public discourse usually falls within the realm of interviewing people who’ve had a video go viral on YouTube, gave an explanation that was remarkable only for how utterly banal it was.
“Be kind to everyone,” she said to rapturous applause from her audience of middle class American housewives. “Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them.” The video was proclaimed as restoring faith in America, rather than what it is — a vindication of people who do terrible things and get away with them.
Ellen DeGeneres, protected by her wealth, celebrity and whiteness, believes in a kindness that treats war crimes as though they are a matter of mere disagreement between people. I wonder whether there is a single family in Iraq who would think that Bush is deserving of kindness.
I am not personally friends with any war criminals, so I can’t relate to the specifics of Ellen’s dilemma. As the world becomes more polarised and we retreat into our bubbles, perhaps there is merit in spending time with people who challenge our point of view — who force us to think differently, or at least interrogate our own beliefs and not take them as a given.
But the older I get, the more difficult I find it to be friends whose worldview I find to be harmful. It’s not just that I disagree with them — it’s that the attitudes they perpetuate are toxic actually hurt people. (Yes, Bush would definitely fall into this category.)
For example, there are certain friends and family members who often express racist sentiments — and I could easily brush these to one side because they didn’t affect me personally. Would this be the “kind” thing to do? Or is it accepting and condoning their behaviour, by taking advantage of my privilege?
I may see them posting hateful comments on social media about feminists, environmentalists or other labels I do identify with— but as long as we avoid this topic in our conversations, we probably could continue a relationship for the rest of our lives. I could tell myself that we all need to be friends with people we don’t always agree with. Because the most important thing is to just be KIND.
But I can’t. To navigate the world in its current fractured state, I think it’s important to ask yourself what your core values are —and actually stand for them, even when it’s difficult. This might mean not sitting next to an ex-President at a football game. Or not talking to racist family members, even if it’s going to make Christmas awkward. Or cutting off friends who you’ve known and loved for years.
I doubt anyone was expecting Ellen DeGeneres to push George W. Bush down the stairs or throw her ice-cream at him. That would be unkind. You can choose to be polite, not make a scene — and still not spend time with someone who stands for things that are just plain terrible. It’s one thing to be kind, but it’s another to tacitly condone a person’s actions or beliefs by simply pretending they don’t exist.
Sometimes, to be kind is actually the easiest way out — at least, Ellen’s version of kindness where you enjoy a fun afternoon at the football, presumably not discussing the invasion of Iraq. Maybe the real kindness is challenging someone on their worldview, or telling them that you love them but you can’t be friends with them anymore.