← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

Ellen, George W. Bush, and the Duty to Be Kind

photograph of Ellen Degeneres relaxing on couch

In early October, Ellen DeGeneres – host of the eponymous daytime talk show Ellenstirred up controversy when she was seen sitting next to, and sharing a few laughs with former President George W. Bush at a football game. That the two would be sitting next to one another and acting congenially came as a surprise to many, not only because Bush is a controversial figure, but especially because of his public stance that same-sex marriage should be illegal, one that DeGeneres vehemently opposes. While it was then odd to see the two together, what some found ever odder was DeGeneres’ explanation, which she stated on her talk show as follows:

“Here’s the thing, I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different…When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way I do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

As an example, DeGeneres stated that while she does not think that people ought to be wearing fur, she is still friends with people who wear fur, despite their difference in views. Here, then, is one lesson we might think we should draw from DeGeneres’ explanation: disagreement on principles should not preclude one’s obligation to be kind to others.

Is DeGeneres right? Is it the case that we ought to be kind to everyone, and perhaps especially to those who disagree with us?

There is something very appealing about this line of thinking, especially when there appears to be so much division across political lines in America. One might think that fostering a general spirit of kindness towards people with differing viewpoints would help counteract some of this divisiveness, and that our default stance towards others should just be this kind of kindness. What’s more, all of us have likely had experiences where we thought the best course of action was to be kind to those who disagree with us, especially when it comes to family and friends. A principle of universal kindness – be kind to everyone, regardless of your disagreements – might then sound pretty good.

Presented as a general principle, though, to say that we ought to be kind to everyone seems clearly to be false. Cases in which I don’t have any obligation to be kind to others are easy to come up with: I don’t owe you kindness if you’ve consistently been a complete jerk to me, for example, nor does it seem like I’m obligated to be kind to you if you’re a genuinely awful person. As some commenters have suggested, Bush’s actions during his presidency may very well put him in the latter category, and thus deserves little in the way of kindness. One worry with showing kindness to even to those who have done morally egregious things is that we might be giving off the message that those transgressions should be forgiven, or at least that they are not that big of a deal.

We might also think that there are problems with saying that one ought to show as much kindness to those with whom one has minor disagreement as to those who have done morally egregious things. Molly Roberts at The Washington Post summarizes the concern as follows:

“Owning a mink…is different from orchestrating a historic foreign policy failure punctuated by a secret torture program and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. There exists a sliding scale of badness determining who deserves complete and total cancellation. You can probably hang out with fur person on one end and you absolutely can’t hang out with neo-Nazis at the other. George W. Bush falls somewhere in between.”

Of course, some might want to argue about the nature of Bush’s presidency: how morally culpable we should find him, and whether we should, overall, classify him as a genuinely awful person. And we still do, of course, have the problem that a failure to show kindness to one’s political and moral opponents could be seen as fostering further divisiveness: if Ellen were to snub Bush’s offer of friendly banter, for example, that might be seen as a more general snub towards Bush supporters and Bush-friendly Republicans. Indeed, Chris Cillizza at CNN writes that chumming around with Bush was actually well in-line with DeGeneres’ left-wing politics:

“What DeGeneres is advocating there is sort of anti-Trumpism in its purest form. Because what this President represents, more than any issue stance or policy position, is the idea that people who disagree with you are to be mocked, to be villainized, to be bullied. If you disagree with Trump on, well, anything, you are his enemy. The only way to be in his good graces — and therefore, in the good graces of those who support him — is to agree with him on absolutely everything.”

According to Cillizza, then, it is a form of anti-Trumpian defiance to show kindness towards one’s opponents, as Trump would never show such kindness to those who disagree with him. Failing to show such kindness, then, would again risk siding oneself with the forces of divisiveness.

Failing to show kindness, however, does not require the kind of mockery, villainizing, and bullying that Cillizza ascribes to Trump: the options that one has when interacting with those one disagrees with are not limited solely to either acting like old friends or viciously attacking them. While there are many potential courses of action in between, one obvious action one could take when presented with someone of morally questionable character with whom one fundamentally disagrees is simply to ignore them.

That is not to say that this is what one should always do – there may indeed be many cases in which showing kindness to one’s opponents is the best course of action. However, it will certainly not always be the case that a failure to show kindness will be equivalent to sowing the seeds of divisiveness, or mockery, villainizing, or bullying. Perhaps, then, Ellen should have just sat somewhere else.

Political Animosity and Estrangement

balck-and-white photograph of protester with "Don't Separate Families" sign

It can be extremely difficult to navigate the current political climate. This task can be especially daunting given the changes occurring within families, where differences in party identification can strain relationships. Heated debates have turned into feuds which last far longer than election night, and now many Americans are wondering whether political affiliations are justification enough to permanently distance themselves from certain family members. Growing political animosity has prompted many to consider the ethical dimensions of cutting off one’s family on the basis of their politics.

These questions of estrangement were recently addressed in a New York Times ethics advice column. “Can I Cut Off a Relative with Hateful Views” explores this idea in the case of one woman who has a friendly relationship with her brother in law however, recently he has become “so radical in his political and world views that I am no longer comfortable maintaining a relationship. He has a blog and is an occasional radio host, so his are very public opinions that are filled with hate and even calls to violent action.” The anonymous individual asking for advice outlines that she feels angered by his hateful speech and wonders about the ethics surrounding deciding to cut off contact by declining invitations to meet up, or if she should clearly let him know that his behavior offends her before taking such actions. The author discusses the importance of discourse between disagreeing family members and stresses that although it is acceptable to cut ties with one’s family over political differences, one should have a conversation addressing why.

This story is one of many which deal with relationships that were complicated due to politics, various similar stories were shared in a Washington Post article which described how holidays have changed for American families since the Trump election. Some stories describe how the election brought their family closer together, while others resulted in rifts that may never heal. Drew Goins writes about a mother from Denver, Colorado who reports the difficulties associated with alienating oneself from family members and also the necessity to do so given circumstances. Cynthia Dorro’s adopted daughters are nonwhite immigrants and her side of the family’s votes for Trump resulted in confusion concerning how best to support her children, “My parents’ votes for Trump tore through me like a bullet… knowing that more than half the people in my home state cast a vote in support of divisiveness and bitter hate toward people like my children has left me unable to even contemplate a visit there.” Now Dorro spends holidays exclusively with her husband’s side of the family which she describes as “devastating, and I can’t really characterize what we do as celebrating the holidays anymore.” Dorro’s is one of many stories which demonstrate the heartbreaking nature of politics on pushing families apart, but not all Americans share this story. Julann Lodge describes his family becoming closer due to a rejection of Trump and his policies, “The Republican members of my family have left the party because they are horrified by the direction the GOP has taken… Now, we are all united in opposing racism, lies and environmental devastation. Trump has united my family more than he will ever know.” Beyond families which go separate ways and those who are closer than ever before, politics has also become an unmentionable topic between relatives of different parties not wishing to quarrel. A St. Louis family describes their love for each other which has fueled an avoidance of all politics related topics which might drive them away from each other, “My aunts and uncles are almost exclusively Republicans. But we love each other deeply, so we all grit our teeth and promise ourselves we will behave. Most of us avoid any mention of politics at all; when someone ignores the unspoken rule, everyone else just kind of drifts out of the room.” These narratives from families across the country illustrate the ways in which their family dynamics have shifted due to the rise of Trump, but others are still confused about when they should draw the line between not speaking about politics, limiting visits with certain family members, and cutting people off altogether. These questions result in a debate which goes much deeper than relationships between feuding family, but rather explores the political polarization occurring in America since the 2016 election.

The Pew Research center emphasizes this rising political animosity according to their survey research. “In choosing a party, disliking the policies of opponents is almost as powerful a reason as liking the policies of one’s own party.” These negative factors which influence individuals political affiliation have fueled the unrest between people from different parties and further research shows that adjectives such as close-minded, lazy, immoral, dishonest, and unintelligent were utilized by almost half of both democrats and republicans to describe members of the opposite party. In fact, growing animosity between parties has been consistently increasing since 2004, and the Pew Research Center found 30% of Democrats believe that the opposite party is a threat to the well-being of the nation, while 40% of Republicans say the same of democrats.

These statistics on political divisiveness and the impressions opposite parties have of each other speak volumes about the ways in which family relations have changed since the election of 2016. Not only do these statistics allow us to better understand what the parties feel about each other, but they provide a mechanism through which we can better interpret policies and learn how to open conversation between people who may be political opposites, but who can ultimately choose to unite with one another against hateful rhetoric. Individual stories of families choosing to maintain a level of distance due political differences is telling of the enormous influence of political polarization at the national level on relationships between individuals.