Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson: The power of deliberative friendship

My good friend Sue Costello recently shared with me the inspiring story of Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson. The short version: Black was a young white nationalist leader going to a progressive college incognito, and Stevenson was (and is) an Orthodox Jew who invited Black to weekly Shabbat dinners with friends after his white nationalist ties were publicly revealed. This invitation set into motion a two-year process of deep conversation and deepening friendship that ultimately led Black to publicly renounce his white nationalist views. The two of them are models of what one of their interviewers, echoing Hannah Arendt, calls “deliberative friendship”—something I think we need to cultivate now more than ever.

Derek Black (left) and Matthew Stevenson

The interviewer I’m referring to is Krista Tippett, host of an excellent podcast called On Being, who did a segment (recorded at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in a room with many Holocaust survivors) entitled “Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson: Befriending Radical Disagreement.” I don’t want to get into the details of the story here; you can find these in this interview, in multiple articles online, and in a book by Eli Saslow entitled Rising out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. Here, I want to simply share briefly what jumped out at me as I listened to this interview—especially that idea of deliberative friendship.

The term “deliberative friendship” is not actually defined in the interview, but given the context, I gather that it is a friendship in which the friends deliberate on big and important topics. (“Deliberate” as a verb means to “engage in long and careful consideration” of a topic.) That’s what happened with Black, Stevenson, and their weekly dinner companions. In their case, while everyone knew about Black’s racial views, Stevenson specifically asked that this topic be avoided. He didn’t want his group of friends to simply “ambush” Black. The racial topic did emerge eventually, but their main topic at first, as Stevenson says tongue-in -cheek, was the “softball topic” of religion.

Whatever is discussed, such friendships can have immense power. Tippett relates how Arendt, a Jew who had to flee the Nazi regime in Germany, spoke of “the importance of friendship—friendship, especially when times are hard, and deliberative friendship as political work, as societal work that could be everyday practice in classrooms and schools.” What would our world look like if we really did this? No, it wouldn’t convert every proponent of hateful ideology into a loving human being overnight, but how many lives would it change?

Indeed, the friendship to which Stevenson invited him had a powerful effect on Black. He says that if the others at the dinners had angrily pounced on him, he would have been ready to counter that. After all, angry rejection is just another day in the life of a white nationalist. What happened instead was something he wasn’t prepared for. As he tells the story:

I think I was less worried about being grilled than what actually happened, where I wasn’t grilled and had to spend, ultimately, years of really enjoyable time among people who—the fact that I was friends with them was contradictory to my worldview….

…I think the real thing that happened, where I was just at a Shabbat dinner for two years, and I had to say, “Well, I think my ideology is very anti-Semitic. Maybe I like this dinner, though.”

So, deliberative friendship has power. (I would add, as Stevenson does, that it is especially powerful when it is in person rather than on the Internet.) But both men stress that it’s not the only thing that is needed to transform society. It would be tempting to conclude that we should dump all that messy “speak truth to power” activism and just have friendly dinner conversations. Black stresses, however, that this isn’t the message that should be taken from their story:

I worry that my story gets told as a piece of evidence that the only way that you change people’s minds is by having friendly conversations with them, when it’s clearly not true. It’s essential that you speak up loudly and condemn something that’s wrong….The context for those conversations was that an entire community of people that I had gotten to know for a semester before they knew who I was, and who I respected, clearly had come to a very intelligent conclusion that what I was advocating was morally wrong, was factually wrong….

…And I really worry that someone will hear the fact that I had quiet conversations over two years and then, ultimately, abandoned my ideology, as proof that being loud and saying, “I condemn that in my society,” is counterproductive, when I don’t think it is. They’re both essential.

Deliberative friendship and passionate activism, then, should go together. And the wonderful thing about putting them together is that a commitment to cultivating this kind of friendship can transform activism into something that is strong but not hateful. This is a crucial point for Stevenson:

…there is a difference between being aggressive and being strong. There’s a difference between being vociferously opposed, in this case, to the white nationalist ideology and other hateful ideologies, and taking steps to harm an individual who subscribes to those ideologies.

Even an ideology which is as reprehensible as most of us, probably all of us in this room, believe white nationalism to be, once you cross the line to saying, “He’s forfeited his rights as a human being; he’s forfeited his right to human dignity by virtue of having those beliefs”—maybe the Nazis said that the Jews forfeited their rights to human dignity by virtue of being Jews. Where does it end? So to be strong, no question, is important. But there is a difference between being strong and violating the humanity of another person.

So, the ultimate power of deliberative friendship is that it affirms the shared humanity of those with whom you disagree—even those with whom you very strongly disagree. And that affirmation is everything. It opens the door, as Black says, to “empathizing with people who [are] not ‘supposed’ to be part of my group and increasing the number of people who [are] in my group.” It opens the door, he says, to the recognition that “by changing our assumptions and challenging our beliefs we can create enormous change and enormous correction in the way things are and the way things work.”

And it opens the door, as Stevenson says about his friendship with Black, to the conviction that there is always hope, for human beings who recognize each other as human beings will in the end see the light:

…it’s one thing to say that people could change, but it’s another to see somebody [Black] who had been engaged in enormously destructive behaviors not only cease doing those behaviors but do a complete about-face and to actively help other people in the same situation that they had been; actively try to make the world a better place. And I think that Derek’s example, and those, convince me beyond a shadow of a doubt that no matter how deeply involved somebody is in a negative pattern of behavior or a negative ideology, they’re never in too deep. There is always a chance for redemption….

As far as hope, I think that the underlying spark of goodness that’s within each and every one of us and within everybody in the world is ultimately going to win out; that this empathy that people can generate and feel—you can’t stop it in the long run.

Amen! 🙂

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