2016 has shaken me, I’ll admit it. I feel alienated from people I thought I knew well, whose civic and spiritual judgement I had once counted upon but now suspect. I used to assume that my political disagreements were with individuals who quarreled with me on the tools and methods best suited to best bring about our shared vision of America. This year, for the first time, I sense that we may not actually share a common vision.
What, then, to do? How do I relate to a new political administration without seeming to normalize, or worse, endorse demagoguery? How do I resist parasitical injustice yet still respect the institutions of government that might host it? How do I speak to friends with whom I disagree, and not so shun and condemn them that I make them permanently disaffected from me and my views?
I remember when I was a young graduate student preparing for a series of oral examinations before a panel of my professors. A classmate, who was also readying for similar exams, and I were in the library exchanging preparation techniques during a study break. What were you concentrating on? How were you approaching a particular topic? After sharing ideas for a few minutes he leaned in closer, as if he were divulging the password to some Prohibition speakeasy.
“Here’s the thing,” he whispered, “I just want to be a clear, shallow pool of information into which each of my examiners can see his own reflection.”
Back then I considered his strategy brilliantly cynical. But today, I take a different view. Perhaps it is not cynicism at all, but simply persuasion of the highest order. After all, as a Christian, I celebrate the notion that Jesus did exactly that. Through the Christmas incarnation in the manger, we could suddenly look directly at God and see humanity reflected.
The practical consequence of this to me is that instead of screaming (at least in my mind) “how could you?”, I need to ask sincerely “how do you think we got to such different places?”. Then I need to listen well and speak back truth in boldness, but also respect. This itself has become controversial because a vocal segment of the citizenry has come to view any meaningful discussion across the philosophical aisle as capitulation. I reject this. It is wrongheaded and merely reinforces the tinny narrative that opposing sides can only engage via Twitter insults. We do not win by allowing the opposition to choose the field of intellectual battle, particularly if it is circumscribed by 140 characters.
So, my very tricky resolutions for 2017 are: Resist and Relate.
- Resist. Oppose demagoguery, injustice, unkindness. Period.
- Relate. Win converts, not arguments.
I’ll try and do this by restricting my most vocal opposition to political philosophies, actions and policies, not people. And I will attempt to determine which actions and policies demand the loudest response. Not all opposition policies will be bad, and not all bad policies are equally consequential. If we do not temper our volume to the most important, then we shouldn’t wonder that people weary of our constant fortissimo. Where people and their character really become the issue, I will try to focus on public officials, not family and friends. And, when the issue is inescapably with family or friends, I will attempt to refrain from demeaning or condescending comments. I plan to maintain credibility and relationship and hope that, over time, they can see enough of themselves in me that they have a place to come when the events of the coming years cause their positions to soften. That’s how minds change.
I am sorry that 2016 has forced me to these resolutions. I’d rather be concentrating on getting more exercise, learning Spanish or taking up some new hobby. But it’s serious. Those that comfort themselves in the certainty that our political institutions will moderate systematic executive malfeasance are unwise. There is no inevitability to the democratic experience. Demagoguery threatens its core, yet we have cavalierly chosen exactly that in the misguided pursuit of “blowing up the status quo”. And history suggests that if accepted political norms of political behavior are truly exploded, those left to build new ones are only rarely Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. More often they are Lenin, Hitler, and Robespierre.
But how can I convince anyone of these views unless they can see in me some story that reflects their own interests, dreams, and experiences? And how can reflection happen unless we maintain proximity to each other?
I read once where, after World War II, British computer pioneer Alan Turing wryly responded to a debate about whether machines will ever write sonnets, by noting that they very well could, but “a sonnet written by a machine will be better appreciated by another machine”. Surely the reverse is also true. If I want another human to understand the poetry of my life and perspective, I won’t do so by becoming an overheated argument delivery machine; I will do so by maintaining genuine personal engagement, reflecting humanity to humanity. However difficult.
So that’s my plan for 2017. Resist and Relate. Hold me to it.
Happy New Year from the Stubborn Glebe.