Two unrelated items of internet flotsam came across my screen this week, and I have been reflecting on both of them since the debates last night.
The first item was this picture. It was all over the Internet and people of all ideological stripes were saying how wonderful it was, and yearning for us go back to some kind of personal civility in our politics. The fact that so many people latched onto this so quickly suggests a true, widespread desire for some kind of civility and decency in our discourse. (Yes, I am aware that some say this was a fake hug. Fine. But the fact that so many people want it to be real reinforces the point).
The second item was something I had seen before about marriages. Based on research by the Gottmans, this item suggests that a marriage can withstand fighting and arguing, but not contempt. It is not the disagreements but the contempt that kills marriages.
Then came the debate. I'm not going to talk about the debate itself much. My greater concern is what came after. As I watched social media, I saw the same people who had shared and liked the photo of President Bush and Mrs. Obama turn into snarky, sneering critics who were anxious to pass on the most caustic remarks about the candidates, but even worse, about the candidate's supporters. The criticism shifted from Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton to their supporters--usually in the snarkiest possible terms. Sadly, these are rational, intelligent people who value kindness and respect, people who say civility is important to them.
If politics somehow absolves us of empathy for other people's views, if elections somehow neutralize the responsibility for what we say about others, if it removes our accountability for how we treat our fellow humans, then then it is no wonder we have two candidates who are immensely unlikable and unpopular. They reflect who we are, and I don't think that reflection is very appealing right now.
Living in a free country is sort of like living in an arranged marriage. We're thrown together without much choice, but now we have to either sink or swim together, making a difficult arrangement work. I think it can work, and I think our system is uniquely set up to allow this kind of thing to flourish. But like real marriages, I don't think we can withstand contempt, not individually and not collectively. I don't like what it does to people I respect. And I don't like what it does to me, frankly.
Leave the candidates aside. Let's talk about regular people. Reducing our opponents to idiots, villains, or cardboard caricatures, allows us to enjoy our own moral and intellectual superiority. Yes, it's a good feeling, the rush of righteous zeal as we realize we are not like them. But this masturbatory moralism does nothing in the long term but deepen the divides between us.
If those divides grow much deeper, I do not see how we can long survive with our current system. Frankly that terrifies me more than what any president can do. A healthy, collective culture in this country can withstand a bad president. On the other hand, the best president in the world would be hard pressed to lead a country with a broken culture.
At this point in humanity's history, we ought to know that pride and arrogance are fundamental, constant, elemental human failings. It is easy to see in others, but difficult to discern in ourselves. So, we all ought to consciously acknowledge that there is a far greater chance than not that a degree of arrogance skews our vision of reality. It ought to give us enough pause to simply be humble, to act with conviction but also with caution. I think we can advocate forcefully for our beliefs--that's the confidence, without assuming that those who oppose it are bad people--that's the caution.
While having a lively discourse, we ought to be open to the fact that people can disagree with us without being bad or stupid. That seems a very modest act of intellectual modesty. But that has to include conversations about those with whom we disagree. Including on social media.
Last night Secretary Clinton said she didn't think it worked very well to have things trickle down from the top. I don't want to get int an economic debate here. But that is a true principle when we think about culture and the way we treat each other. Contempt is bad. It destroys important bonds. Constant division is dangerous for us. Really, truly dangerous. We want civility. So that needs to start with each one of us. We cannot wait for people at the top to model this. They won't. They will always reflect us and what we really want. We have to be the change and hope it will trickle up.
The good news is that we don't need a law or a politician to change this. The good news is that it is completely in our power, each of us, to do this. The bad news is that I'm not sure we really want to. I think we want other people to be civil. But if it means forgoing that snarky comment or the tweet that just skewers those idiots/bigots/lying thieves on the other side? Well, that is a different story.
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