Why the “freedom” convoys are tearing Canadian friendships apart

Feb 17 2022, 9:54 pm

The “freedom” convoys and anti-vaccine mandate protests that overwhelmed major Canadian cities also left ugly stains on friendships, experts say. 

You may have noticed it happening in your own life, too. The convoys were divisive and many duos didn’t make it out intact.

University of Winnipeg instructor of social and personality psychology Beverley Fehr says division happens because the protest touches on people’s core values. 

“Friendships generally are based on similarity of views, including political views. However, friends can tolerate some level of dissimilarity, but it is more difficult to manage that when the dissimilarity is in areas that are important and value-laden,” she said. 

For some people, getting vaccinated to protect oneself and others is a core value, often sidled with equality and social justice.

“Such values conflict with the values of the protesters. The truckers are anti-vax, anti-mask, which they argue reflects their core value of individual freedom. Some of the extremist groups that have joined have been accused of being racist, homophobic, and/or antisemitic. Those values conflict with the values of equality and respect for all,” she said.

Friendships become more vulnerable to dissolution under this kind of pressure. And talking it out might not work, adds Fehr. 

Research she conducted with a former Ph.D. student showed when conflict issues arise, friends opt for passive responses rather than actively engaging in discussions of the issue.

“So friends will either ignore the issue or ‘hang in there’ hoping the issue will eventually resolve itself,” she said. 

When they asked participants what the outcome would be if they did constructively discuss a disagreement with a friend, they said they expected a negative reaction. This differs from the results they got while surveying couples, who were more likely to believe conversation could be used to solve their disputes.

“Based on these findings, I don’t think that people will be or are very motivated to try to discuss these very polarizing issues, given that they don’t see a possible resolution,” said Fehr. 

“They will rather just let the friendship wither on the vine.”

It’s just as hard with family and friends who are unlikely to change their minds.

Azim Shariff is an associate professor in social psychology at UBC. He says intersecting trends related to the convoys are creating “a perfect storm” for division between loved ones.

One key issue is polarization. 

“People prefer members of their own political group because they really hate people from the other side,” he said. 

“Where that’s intersecting with friendships is that political differences which used to be unimportant or unknown have become more salient during the pandemic, especially when we have these mandates that are affecting everyday parts of our lives.” 

Things we used to ignore about political differences can’t be ignored anymore because our everyday actions are so governed by our political position, he adds. 

“Whether you wear a mask, whether you get vaccinated, how you feel about going to work — all these kinds of things are policy decisions that we kind of buried but are in your face now,” said Shariff.

As a result, differences you might not have noticed before are more likely to come to the forefront and result in a friend breakup during the pandemic. 

Further polarizing people is the tendency to be more vigilant while public health is under threat, adding urgency to the issue.

“When we’re more concerned about getting sick, infectious diseases, that increases our world vigilance, so we become more aware of moral infractions and transgressions, not just in the sphere of catching diseases, but generally across the board,” he said.

“When the risk of infectious disease is high, people tend to tolerate less difference. They tend to prefer unity and conformity.”

Patriotism also comes into play, as people across the country re-evaluate what it means to be Canadian. “Freedom” convoy participants use the flag often, pinning it to their vehicles or waving it on the street as a symbol of free will. 

Not everyone agrees with that approach. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has invoked the Emergencies Act to condemn the convoy protestors, showing a deep divide between not only members of the public, but also a rift between government and voters.

If you want to save your faltering relationships, Fehr suggests reminding yourself of what you have in common with the people in question.

Sadly, it seems inevitable that friendships will continue to fall apart over differing views on the protests, vaccinations, and restrictions.

“Friendship is often described as the ‘most voluntary relationship’, which also makes it a vulnerable relationship,” said Fehr. 

“As they say, you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. The unfortunate flip side is that you also can ‘unchoose’ your friends, and that is what happens when core values are in conflict.”

“You can consider, ‘What is the news environment that they’re in? How much is it on their phone? Why do they come to different positions?’ And then how important to you is it that your friends all believe the same thing as you do?” 

Canadians could see a day when moral differences are more accepted among friends, he says. To avoid burning any bridges, he encourages valuing the differences of opinion so you can broaden your own worldview.

“There may be dealbreakers, but I think it’s probably worth considering now and in the future, that sameness might not always be as valuable as it is now.”

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