The other night I was sitting next to my wife, Cari, while scrolling through Google News on my phone. The top story was about some inarticulate comment made by some public figure.
What followed was a series of articles and videos of commentators on one side of the political aisle feigning indignation and holding up what the person said as conclusive proof of the moral corruption of their political opponents. Those who agreed with the comment, of course, then felt compelled to respond with even greater levels of faux outrage of their own.
In other words, it was just another day of modern political “discourse” in our country.
Although I agreed that what the public figure said was foolish, it seemed more inarticulate to me rather than a statement of guiding principles for which this person should be judged. Yet the comment, the response of the commentariat and the other side’s subsequent response to the initial response was filled with manufactured outrage and righteous indignation.
I may have better educational credentials than Cari, but she is far wiser than I’ll ever be. She summed up modern political discourse with a simple sentence: “You gotta want it.”
Too many of us want to see nefarious motives behind every unthoughtful word spoken by someone with whom we disagree politically. We’re looking for it. We treat a casual, inarticulate phrase as incontrovertible proof of what someone “really” believes. This creates impossible expectations for how every thought that a public figure has cannot be spoken aloud until it is a completely coherent, well-thought-out, fully edited statement.
The reality is that we all sometimes make careless, meandering comments as we try to make sense of our complex and often contradictory world. Yet when an incomplete or inarticulate fragment of a thought is uttered by those whose political ideology differs from our own, too often we enthusiastically use it as a weapon to bludgeon their reputation.
I raise this issue because I’m concerned. There are real, intractable problems that face our world, our nation and even our idyllic little Door County. The solutions are neither easy to design nor will they be simple to implement.
Overcoming these challenges will require us to be able to talk openly with each other, exploring ideas and considering differing perspectives without fear that the tiniest misstatement will be used against us. When we debate the relative merits of different courses of action and foster a respectful competition of ideas, we usually emerge from the conversation with greater insight than any of us could realize on our own.
Fundamentally, we need to be civil to each other not just for civility’s sake, but because it fosters the best outcomes and allows us to ultimately unite as a community to work together to solve our shared problems.
Let me make clear that I recognize there are people who believe and do horrible things that are worthy of public condemnation. As the grandchild of an illegal immigrant from the Philippines, I’ve had my own experiences with racism in this country. I also recognize that women and people of differing sexual orientations still face real discrimination.
What I am suggesting is that we begin every interaction in a spirit of generosity. An ill-conceived policy idea might be a sign of inexperience, not evidence of underlying hostility toward some segment of America. A seemingly offensive comment might be the result of an inability to find the right word, not proof of latent racism or sexism. If there are multiple ways to interpret a comment, Cari unfailingly chooses to consider it in the best possible light. She initially assumes the best of everyone. Frankly, that can be really annoying, especially when I’m all worked up with righteous indignation. Yet after more than 25 years of living with this wise woman, I’ve found she’s usually right.
Most people do not want, or intend, to offend anyone. Most people’s actions are rooted in a desire to do the right thing, even if we sometimes disagree on what those actions should be.
We Americans have far more in common than our politics would have us believe. Rather than rush to judgment and assume the worst about those with whom we disagree, let’s be generous and give each other the benefit of the doubt. Let’s begin every interaction assuming the best of each other.
Contact Bret Bicoy at [email protected].