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Heavy Meddle: Bigots Around The Campfire: When Booze Unleashes The Worst In People You Love

Is it better to confront alcohol-fueled expressions of hate -- whether they are jokes or not -- or to remain silent for the sake of keeping the peace? (zanthia/Flickr)
Is it better to confront alcohol-fueled expressions of hate -- whether they are jokes or not -- or to remain silent for the sake of keeping the peace? (zanthia/Flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,

Steve

Dear Steve,

My husband and I have a large circle of friends that includes his older brother's friends and their wives and children. We socialize often, and 99 percent of the time, I really enjoy them — they are fun-loving, loyal friends.

Once or twice a year, we stay in a house in the White Mountains together, enjoying the outdoors, sitting around a campfire and, of course, drinking. There are a few members of this group that consider themselves conservative Republicans. They call themselves "True Americans" and carry Don't Tread On Me koozies. They all laugh about it, and it seems like a giant inside joke. When they drink, however, they become complete and utter bigots, spouting extremely hateful, racist and sexist comments. They do this under the banner of being "pro-American," touting their freedom.

When they drink... they become complete and utter bigots, spouting extremely hateful, racist and sexist comments. They do this under the banner of being 'pro-American,' touting their freedom.

I, too, am an American, and I don't judge anyone for their political preferences, provided everyone treats each other with respect. I am also pretty liberal and a Democrat, so these displays make me sick to my stomach. As the wife of one of the people in this circle (who doesn't share their extremist views), I am somewhat of an outsider, so I try to bite my tongue when I hear a comment. Sometimes, if I have had a drink or two, I just can't stand the fact that NO ONE says anything when one of them says he wants to "blow up all the Mosques" or, "If my daughter dates a black man, I will murder him!" So, I feel like I have to speak up. And, of course, a fight with a drunk, ignorant bigot is not one you're ever going to win, and it just ends up with me nearly in tears.

The day after, everyone goes about his or her business as a happy little group, like nothing ever happened. I don't want to stir the pot, so I let it go, only to have it happen again a year later, which leaves me stewing and bubbling over with anger and resentment anew.

I honestly can't tell if they do it to get a rise out of me, and it's all just a joke, or if they really, truly feel this way. If they are messing with me, it's cruel, and if they are not, it's sickening, and it makes me worry for their daughters, who are my nieces. I really don't want to associate with people like this, but the rest of the time, they are wonderful people. I don't forget or forgive when they are not, however, and I never will. I am looking for advice on how to stand up for myself or mitigate these situations.

Thank you,

LC

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Dear LC,

Let me say first that writing about this and seeking advice is doing something. Part of the conflict you’re setting out here has to do with remaining silent versus making your voice heard. I think about this a lot. Is it better to shut up for the sake of your own mental health and the harmony of this group? Or should you confront the cruelty of your friends?

It would be easy enough for someone like me — who’s to the left of Christ when it comes to politics — to condemn the folks involved for these comments, which aren’t just bigoted but actually constitute hate speech. I could get up on my soapbox (I always have one close at hand) and insist that people who espouse views of this sort, in whatever manner, are toxic and unworthy of your friendship.

But that, too, feels like a form of bigotry. Life is more complicated. People aren’t just good or bad. They are both at once. By your own account, these folks are “fun-loving, loyal friends” 99 percent of the time. It’s just once a year that their tongues get loosened by drink and the ugliness within them comes roaring out. It’s also unclear to you (and me) whether they truly hold these views or are “joking” with you. As you note, in either case, the cruelty comes through.

I’m curious about your husband’s role here. You make clear that he doesn’t share the “extremist views” of his older brother and company. But if I’m reading your letter right, when you’ve objected to their bigotry, you’ve wound up in a squabble that ends with you “nearly in tears.” Where is your husband during all this? Does he just sit there and watch? Does he try to intercede? It strikes me as odd and frankly disturbing that a husband would watch drunken men essentially bait and bully his wife.

Where is your husband during all this? Does he just sit there and watch? Does he try to intercede? It strikes me as odd and frankly disturbing that a husband would watch drunken men essentially bait and bully his wife.

Once the sparring is over, what does he say? Does he offer you comfort? Does he suggest that you should just ignore the guys when they’re inebriated? Does he make excuses for them? My guess — and I have to guess, because you’re not explicit about this — is that he participates in this effort to minimize these incidents, to pretend nothing happened. But something did happen. This isn’t about him defending your honor, or even your views. It’s about him being sensitive to your feelings.

I’m picking at this because it sounds like there’s a loyalty issue here. As you frame things, you and your husband spend a lot of time with his older brother and their friends. Although you enjoy them most of the time, you write that you still feel like “somewhat of an outsider,” especially during and after these donnybrooks. But why would friends make you feel like an outsider? Or fail to acknowledge that a late-night argument went too far? And why would your husband consent to an arrangement by which you, his wife, wind up feeling bullied and isolated? For that matter, where are the other women in this group of friends? Are they all cool with your being targeted and mocked?

I use the word “bully” quite intentionally, because what’s so insidious about this situation is the way in which the men in question (and it’s significant that it’s all men) target you specifically, knowing that you don’t feel secure enough within the group to fight back. That’s the bully’s trademark: He or she targets people who won’t fight back. It’s how weak people make themselves feel strong.

The more basic and upsetting question is whether it makes sense for you to be friends with people who provoke you in this way and who refuse to openly acknowledge the pain they cause. And then there’s the even thornier question of whether you have a moral responsibility to confront such casual cruelty.

These are complicated questions. My sense is that the big joke to these guys — if they are joking — is that you’re some kind of bleeding heart. That is: You don’t want the meanness of the world swept under the rug. To some extent, the way this scenario plays out is a direct repudiation of your ethos. Deep down, these guys know they’re being callous. But rather than confront that truth, they mock the messenger and tell themselves it’s your fault for “not getting the joke.”

The bottom line is that you have a range of options here. You could avoid these “friends” when they drink. Steer clear of the whole set up. That may mean skipping the vacation or simply heading to bed before the invective starts flying.

I mentioned above that it is not your husband’s role to “defend your honor.” But given your relationship to him and the more tenuous relationship you have to the group, I’m confused as to why he hasn’t already confronted his brother about this pattern. How much does your husband know about your distress? Does he understand that, to you, these aren’t just beer-soaked tussles but painful episodes? If he did, I suspect he’d want to talk to your brother and the other men involved.

Deep down, these guys know they’re being callous. But rather than confront that truth, they mock the messenger and tell themselves it’s your fault for 'not getting the joke.'

You could also meet with your brother-in-law — no drinks, please — and let him know that, as much as you like him and his family, you don’t like the way he and his friends behave in this one context. You can tell him that, whatever his intent, he routinely upsets you and makes you feel isolated and unhappy. As difficult as that conversation might be, it would force your brother-in-law to recognize your suffering. That’s sometimes what it takes for a bully to stop.

In your letter you ask for advice on how you can stand up for yourself. The most basic answer I can give you is to be honest about your feelings — with your husband especially, but also his brother and the rest of the Don’t Tread on Me crew — just as you’ve been with me.

You don’t have to confront your brother-in-law or his friends about their macho pathologies. Those arise from insecurities far deeper than you can plumb. But you can appeal to their basic humanity, what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” To do so would represent a quiet form of heroism that might bring a greater share of mercy into our world.

I suspect the folks who fill the comment section down below will pooh-pooh this notion. They’ll insist that your brother-in-law will never face what he’s doing and take responsibility. But whether he does or not is a separate issue from standing up for yourself, which means speaking your mind and heart, even and especially when it would be safer to remain silent.

Onward, together,

Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football."

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