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Portrait of two young men Giovanni Cariani Vittore Belliniano 1456-1529
‘A lot of people try on all kinds of guises then shed them again before adulthood.’ Painting: Portrait of Two Young Men, attributed to Giovanni Cariani. Photograph: Peter Horree/Alamy
‘A lot of people try on all kinds of guises then shed them again before adulthood.’ Painting: Portrait of Two Young Men, attributed to Giovanni Cariani. Photograph: Peter Horree/Alamy

I’m a boy in my teens and I’m worried about my oldest friend. We’ve hit a divide over politics

Beliefs respond to how we live and what we feel, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. You can give your friend experiences that could help change his

I’m a boy in my late/middle teens, and I’m worried about my oldest friend. He’s also my cousin and, as you might expect, we’ve known each other our entire lives. We’re the same age, similar interests and we’ve been extremely close since early childhood, however as we’ve grown up we’ve hit a divide: politics.

I support slow progression over generations into socialism, whereas he’s a rightwinger who says he’s “centrist”. He also has slightly edgy views around things which have polluted the minds of our peers, saying things such as “I can see Tate’s point, the world has come to discriminate against men,” or “It’s no longer acceptable for men to be masculine.”

Should I break off contact with him, which may be awkward due to our family members; try to talk to him about this further; share this with his family (which would poison our relationship, and honestly they probably wouldn’t care) or just let him sort himself out? I’ve talked to other friends, but their opinions are spread and just confused me further. Have you got any advice as to what I should do?

Eleanor says: I think it speaks so highly of you that you’ve asked around to find out what you should do. Not only have you realised this is something you want to change, but you’ve also had the humility and curiosity not to just go with your first thought.

Don’t underestimate how much insight that takes – whatever you do in the end about this relationship, I’d just put that knowledge in your pocket as a sort of medallion of pride. In a difficult situation you’ve already showed a lot of character.

I’m less worried about his political views than I am about his views on masculinity. His political beliefs are ultimately up to him, and politics are for many people oddly independent of their actual character. But a dismissal of women, or a narrative that men have been made victims of feminist progress – that can be much harder to shift.

A rigid gendered framework tends to become not only a set of beliefs, but a set of perceptions. It affects how we see people, almost literally what we hear or who we will listen to. It alters not only the positions in certain debates, but what is up for debate, and who can contribute. That’s a lot harder to deal with.

The reassuring stuff first: lots of people do things in their teenage years that are mortifying to them years later. Getting an identity can feel like an urgent task during adolescence, as though if I throw on the regalia of being This Kind of Person then I’ll have the things I’m actually in need of, like self-understanding, or attractiveness, or independence. A lot of people try on all kinds of guises, from goths to young toastmasters, then shed them again before adulthood.

The less reassuring stuff: it is my suspicion, though it’s difficult to quantify, that online spaces make it a lot easier to get accidentally rusted on to these identities. If forums and YouTube spirals can snare and radicalise adults, it can’t be any easier for a young person to get out of them, especially when they quite like the feeling of being clever enough to see what other people miss. The risk is he might really upset some girls around him who are also in their formative years.

Unfortunately reasoned conversation or punitive cutting-off are only rarely tools of conversion. But here’s something you might be able to exploit: very often, people’s beliefs respond to the emotional experiences they have in everyday life. I wonder whether you could surreptitiously give him experiences that might work like counter-evidence to the ways he’s thinking. Can you get him into an all-gender sporting league, or into volunteering in a way that uses your hands: an environment with people of all ages, not split by gender, where people have to be hard-working and cooperative? Can you insist on modelling what it looks like to have female friends, so women aren’t just something imaginary to be generalised about with other men online?

Can you help fill his life with things that offer him belonging, or independence, or a chance to feel clever? That way he’ll have options to turn to, beyond the spaces that reinforce his beliefs, when he wants to feel those things.

In time you might need to appraise whether he’s someone you want to be friends with, but for now, you’re in an incredibly valuable position: you’re a close male friend. That gives you a lot of influence. Just by how you’re thinking of this, I feel confident you’ll use it well.

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