You don’t have to be friends with anyone, but if you’re going to be friends with someone, you should probably meet them where they stand. If you’re going to be friends with someone, you should love them as they are, and not try to change them. Zack Ford, writer for Think Progress and wokeist extraordinaire, thinks so much of his friendship that he gave one of his old friends an ultimatum: his friendship, or his friend’s MAGA hat. The friend chose the hat, and Ford was offended, but the friend was right, and Ford is just an ass.

This whole story came to light in Ford’s own newsletter, Fording the River Styx. He wrote about the incident with some measure of pride and self-congratulation at his fortitude in unfriending this old friend. The story goes that an old friend of his from high school appeared on his feed wearing a MAGA hat, while holding her baby daughter. The picture had a wholesome feel to it, and Ford couldn’t deal with the hat amidst all this wholesomeness. He reached out to his friend, an evangelical Christian, to explain to her just how damaging her hat was.

…seeing her proudly wearing a MAGA hat in public — and with her daughter no less — violated this accord deeply. It’s not just a hat. It’s a symbol of all of the oppression and injustice the Trump administration is responsible for. It’s an endorsement of caging kids, banning Muslims, firing trans people, and dozens of other ways Trump has undermined our democracy — up to and including the fascist military display that graced the National Mall last night. More than anything, “MAGA” represents the idea that some human lives are worth more than others.

When we get to the point that we are quibbling over symbols for which the meaning to one person and the meaning to another person differ so drastically, it’s no wonder that we can’t have lasting friendships. The hat as a symbol to the friend, and as a symbol to Ford, don’t have any similarity. Like the hat or not, it’s a hat, it’s fashion, and its meaning seems to be entirely in the eye of the beholder.

And if Ford believes that MAGA “represents the idea that some human lives are worth more than others,” he’s probably okay with the concept, just not how he believes it’s here applied. He was pretty vocal about the whole bakers have to decorate cakes even if they don’t want to thing because presumably the customers’ right to their beliefs is more important than the bakers’ rights to theirs.

I explained all of this to my old friend. To those inclined to reject the humanity of any particular group, a MAGA hat is a symbol of affirmation — license and encouragement to continue holding those beliefs. To members of those many rejected groups, it’s a threat — a warning that such prejudice is welcome in that person’s vicinity (and may come from them directly). It’s unacceptable to me to be subjected to that symbol from someone with whom I hypothetically have mutual trust.

All this from a hat, as though wearing a hat means all of those things. It’s not any more of a threat than Ford’s threat to pull his friendship. Friendships have been falling apart all over the place in the Trump era. We’re all so sure that we’re right, and that the very fate of the world depends on us being right, and that this righteousness means we have to point out and punish anyone and everyone who we think is wrong. On my Facebook feed, I see friends all the time worrying about how to still deal with family who they disagree with, or how to talk to friends with whom they disagree, or how to make sure everyone knows that the rich and varied hell of the worldscape, as everyone sees it from their own perspective, isn’t their fault, because they have the right views. Ford gave his friend a choice, his friendship or the hat. Presumably, he felt pretty righteous about this.

I gave my friend an ultimatum. I told her I wouldn’t unfriend her so long as she apologized for wearing the hat and promised me I wouldn’t have to see it in my feed again.

Righteousness is not the answer; it literally never is. Righteousness is itself intolerant. The problem with the demand for an apology is that, in this era of constant hand-wringing and mea culpas for every little infraction, apologies are meaningless. Not only do they not represent an actual repentance, they are not treated as such. Apologies are simply considered evidence of guilt, and not a path toward repentance, or changing one’s behaviour.

When she claimed I was trying to police her beliefs, I corrected her, pointing out that my conditions only regarded the hat, not her position on any particular issue. When she claimed that she’s equally offended by the Pride flag, I corrected her again, explaining that objecting to a symbol of inclusion is in no way comparable to objecting to a symbol of exclusion and that she was making a false equivalency. When she said, “If I can’t have an opinion about something then I guess I don’t really live in a free country,” I knew there was no longer enough common ground for us to have a relationship.

If any of us got a DM out of the blue from an old high school friend letting us know that our clothing offended them and they wanted us to not ever let them see it again, how would any of us react? Certainly not with an apology or a promise to make sure they never saw that clothing again. The idea of a person who would withhold friendship based on our clothing choices, or the beliefs they believe those clothes represents, makes the complainer a great candidate for someone to not be friends with anymore. Also he corrected her with regard to his perception about her beliefs, but when she corrected him about his perception of hers, he simply believed her to be intransient.

We have free speech, but we don’t have freedom from accountability for that speech. Anyone reading this is free to wear a MAGA hat, but you can’t both wear a MAGA hat and claim to “love thy neighbor.” You can’t both wear a MAGA hat and claim to respect me or millions of other Americans. You can’t both wear a MAGA hat and believe that you’re not reinforcing hate and oppression against others. We’re way too far past such naivete at this point, and I certainly want no part in helping you to convince yourself otherwise.

This is the real kicker. In policing his friend’s clothes, and claiming to not police her beliefs, he is assessing her value according to his perceived tenets of her stated religion. If he were to dig a little deeper, he would find that the concept of loving thy neighbor is not about judging people for not loving you, but about you, yourself, loving others.

In a little church called Saint Clare’s last weekend, where I’d never been before, I heard the good father deliver a homily on a similar topic. He said, in short, don’t let others’ behaviour become a basis for your own. Don’t be always reacting to how others act, but choose your own course, in accordance with how you wish to behave. You can’t change others, you can only change yourself. Ford was out of line in demanding both an apology and the removal of his friend’s hat. Friendship is not about imposing terms and conditions, it is about acceptance, love, and compassion. If Ford couldn’t open his heart to his friend, his friend is probably better off without his friendship.