Desperately Seeking Civility
By Conor Sheehey
Conor earned his B.A. in English from UVa (Class of 2014) and worked to complete his graduate degree at the Relay Graduate School of Education, M.A.T. (2016). He is currently serving the community as a High School Teacher at Discovery High School, Bronx, NY.
Most pundits and pollsters seem to agree that Election 2016 ended not with a whimper but a bang. After an excruciatingly lengthy campaign season characterized by apocalyptic rhetoric, character attacks, and a hefty stack of controversies, celebrity businessman Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th president of the United States.
Rather than deliver peace and solace to the American public, Mr. Trump’s victory has exacerbated the tensions on display over the course of the past seventeen months. Intoxicated by a hard-fought win, voters from the Trump camp have interpreted the political outsider’s election as a well-deserved blow to the ominous Establishment and a repudiation of the Obama era. The fiercest Trump opponents, in turn, have become the walking dead. Defeated yet energized, many of these voters have sought to strike a balance between unadulterated despondency and all-out vengeance.
Hyperbole aside, we might all benefit from caring a bit less. At the risk of offending the most inconsolable members of each camp, I question the extent to which extreme emotional investment and strong feelings correlate with anything but annoyed friends and Facebook blocks. Apathy yields unproductivity and empties us of empathy, but staying informed and advocating for movements and causes do not, to my knowledge, necessitate feeling “heartbroken” or “devastated” when outcomes fail to match our expectations.
The prospect of a Trump presidency has thrilled millions and repulsed millions of others, leaving many of us somewhere in between. The apparent dichotomy reflected by the two poles of the populace may, however, mask a bizarre brand of unity that should surprise no one who witnessed the ecstatic outpouring of love and support for President Obama in the wake of the 2008 election.
Barack Obama has very little in common with Mr. Trump, and to cast the latter as the conservative version of the former seems unforgivably simplistic. That said, we need not equate the two men to argue that they have both benefitted and suffered at the hands of the same phenomenon. Whether intentionally or not, the followers of both President Obama and President-Elect Trump have embraced the inverse of John F. Kennedy’s famous refrain, “[Ask] not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
President Obama’s fiercest supporters saw him, at least in the early years, as a harbinger of hope, change, and happiness, not merely as a policymaker or executive, but also as a cultural leader. Mr. Trump, for his part, has borrowed from Bob the Builder, an underrated cultural icon in his own right, to posit that he, alone, can fix it.
Even the president-elect’s language towards the LGBTQ community, which he promises to “protect” from the forces of evil, suggests that we would do well to place our personal hopes and dreams in his hands. In this way, Mr. Trump has essentially made a pitch to occupy the same space as President Obama, only with his own style, message, and agenda. This approach may rest on the best of intentions, but it reinforces a corrosive fiction: that politics can save us.
Undoubtedly, policies have real-world consequences and implications. Supreme Court appointments can alter the way in which laws are made and interpreted. Administrative rules and orders, increasingly, can announce regulations and reforms. To argue that politics constitutes a useless or powerless field is thus ludicrous, and to pretend that political questions have no impact on Americans, particularly in the case of the most vulnerable among us, is misguided.
Nevertheless, politics cannot offer you sustainable personal fulfillment. Public policy cannot adorn you with a higher purpose. The government cannot provide you with a lasting romantic bond, enduring friendships, or lifelong passions. You bear responsibility for your own happiness, and your dignity comes from within. No legal institution, lobbying firm, or PAC can change that.
When we attach our personal happiness and sense of identity to the government, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Over the course of the past eight years, I can think of countless instances in which the Obama administration acted in a manner that angered, upset, or thoroughly confused me. I can think of Supreme Court decisions that have left me distraught and foreign policy choices that have left me dumbfounded. Working at a public school in the Bronx, I have experienced firsthand the effects of aggressive bureaucratic expansion and increased oversight.
At no point have I fallen into despair, and at no point have I impugned the motives of those at the helm of our governing bodies. Growing up in a Catholic household, I learned fairly early in life that despair was not only counterproductive, but also wrong. Enshrined as one of the Seven Deadly Sins, it eats away at our aspirations and goals, as well as our relationships. It alienates us from anyone not similarly afflicted, and it transforms friends, colleagues, significant others, and spouses into unfeeling monsters and villains.
As this election has exposed in living color, despair thus renders civility impossible, particularly because it alternates not with humility and compassion, but rather with pride and wrath. In a world in which electoral victories and policy wins are celebrated with smug self-satisfaction, arrogant self-righteousness, and angry denunciations of supposedly stupid or sinister opponents, mutual hostility can sustain itself indefinitely, calcifying cultural divisions and partisan tensions.
When virtually everyone in politically engaged circles serves as a surrogate for his or her candidate or cause of choice at any given time, both sides are bound to feel an emotionally intense and steadfast devotion to their champions and their positions. In this type of environment, making concessions feels like giving up ground, and compromise has the whiff of blasphemy.
This divisive partisan culture may work perfectly fine for elected officials who are speaking on the record, so long as they express a willingness to find common ground and make deals when necessary, but such a climate is unnecessary and downright scary among friends, colleagues, and peers, who generally engage in political discussions outside of the public eye.
Hillary Clinton’s defense of having a “private” and “public” stance on issues may have confirmed unsavory suspicions among some Americans, but she was and is clearly correct on the matter. More importantly, the fact that this distinction exists at all should presumably free those of us who virtually never have conversations on the record from flaunting our orthodoxy, as if any of our friends or coworkers care how “pure” our politics are.
The problem, of course, is that some of them do. Scores of positions, from pro-life abortion views to skepticism of race-based affirmative action, are unwelcome in polite company among certain circles, and when discussions of these topics do occur, assumptions of malice and selfishness can surface on both sides.
One potential solution to this problem of unnecessarily heightened tensions and unduly hurt feelings is for all parties concerned to take a step back and to put the issue in question in perspective. Surely, we can donate to the causes we support. We can even select career paths based on our policy positions and political philosophies.
At the same time, taking a deep breath and agreeing or disagreeing, or simply assuming good faith on the part of our sparring partners, can mean the difference between a wounded connection and a respectful, productive chat. The stakes of a political issue may be high, but the stakes of a casual conversation about even the most essential of policy questions need not be.
Along these lines, some of the common taglines of the activist Left, such as, “Silence is violence” and “The personal is political,” may prove counterproductive. These apparent axioms treat speech as a vehicle for power, severely underestimating just how grating, exhausting, and alienating some modes of communication can be. After almost two years of death by political dialogue, many of us would prefer to see some subjects freed from the shackles of politicization, at least for a while. Allowing political happenings to dictate our moods should be cause for concern, not adulation.
In addition to putting political matters into perspective and transferring responsibility for our personal fulfillment onto ourselves, we would also do well to assume good faith and good intentions when speaking with political adversaries and friends with conflicting views. When we refuse to assume good faith and good intentions on the part of those with whom we disagree, we find ourselves quickly surrounded by villains, cowards, and ignoramuses. For those on the Left, these specters seem, most often, to take the form of bigots, racists, sexists, homophobes, and other variations of the “deplorable” model described by Hillary Clinton earlier in the cycle. On the Right, these ghouls less often take the shape of prejudiced politicos or identity groups, instead amounting to valueless, statist blobs in search of a social order akin to that of the Soviet Union.
We can all agree that some of these demons do, in fact, exist, and that they can motivate even seemingly innocent behavior in certain circumstances. That said, we accomplish very little by trying to tag our peers with these labels, particularly because good policy need not come from a perfect person. If winning an argument about race-based affirmative action requires that you brand your opponent as a racist, then your argument probably isn’t very good. The same logic holds for the other side.
Good faith may amount to nothing more than a useful fiction in some cases, and legitimate character flaws are undoubtedly grounds for refusing to elect any number of candidates into office, but when we pretend that our opponents are well-meaning, sane people, this fantasy often comes true. Particularly if we accept that, for most of us, everyday political conversations are not substantive game-changers, giving the other side the benefit of the doubt should never become an insurmountable obstacle.
In fairness, “good faith” will not bridge every gap. Conservative and liberal “elites” may go to some of the same restaurants and bars and exist within some of the same social circles, but their differences should not be dismissed out of hand. Beyond policy, language is a major point of contention, with phrases like “tone policing,” “microaggression,” and “verbal violence” empowering many on the Left while leaving at least some of us on the Right recoiling.
For conservatives, civility, in the context of a conversation involving these types of terms, might mean biting the bullet and listening to the content of the other person’s message, even if the form carries an undeniable “ick” factor. For liberals, civility might mean recognizing that discomfort with these terms speaks more to philosophical differences than to any sort of “-ism.” We may not speak using the same terms, for instance, when it comes to race, but both sides may offer ideas and proposals with practical and moral value. Disregarding the other party’s argument in light of his or her neglect of terms such as “people of color” and “institutionalized racism” will block you off from potential insights and discoveries..
When we polish and monitor our conversational style, when we remind ourselves that politics is not everything, and when we pursue fulfillment through our own initiative, we may find that much of our national political and cultural debate is out of touch with reality. Just as Democrats and media minds have acknowledged that their demonization of Mitt Romney in 2012 made it difficult to convincingly amp up or validate attacks on Mr. Trump this past year, Republicans may find, in due time, that the Left can offer up far worse than President Obama or Hillary Clinton, and that our own insults and smears might have lacked proportion.
As an American, I approach President-Elect Donald Trump with an open heart and an open mind. As a Catholic, I pray for an administration that operates with compassion and care for the inherent dignity of all human life. As a conservative, I hope for fiscally responsible policy prescriptions and empowering social policy. All of this aside, however, my greatest hope is that character, decency, and civility come to dominate the political culture in time, and that Americans across the political spectrum come to recognize that politics can never fix all of our problems or present us with the purpose and salvation that we crave.
1. Robot Hugs, “No, We Won’t Calm Down - Tone Policing is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege,” Everyday Feminism, December 7, 2015, http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/12/tone-policing-and-privilege/.
2. Heben Nigatu, “21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear on a Daily Basis,” Buzzfeed, December 9, 2013, https://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/racial-microagressions-you-hear-on-a-daily-basis?utm_term=.hdelbP2KP#.lm52m5LN5.
3. Mischa Haider, “America’s Existential Hour,” Huffington Post, November 7, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/americas-existential-hour_us_58200b60e4b0334571e09e81.