“If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if in back of the softness there does not lie strength, power...” President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).
Teddy Roosevelt, or as he often preferred, “T.R.” is my favorite president by far. The former “boy Governor of New York” became President in 1901, ascending from the Vice-Presidency, following the fall 1900 assassination of President William H. McKinley. The Roosevelts, Teddy, and later F.D.R., Eleanor and others, were not above hard-fought political contests, and even occasional mud-slinging, but in the White House, as well as on the campaign trail and in public life, this split party family believed in the civility of the discourse. Our current President did not create the great divide in our nation, nor did he alone brings things to their current state, of almost daily shootings in our major cities or most recently regular acts of violent protest to a level which some consider domestic terrorism.
Civility, teaching it, practicing it, and living it, begins at home. As a columnist, commentator, and analyst of things political, I have lost count in recent months of how many times I am approached by a reader, listener, or viewer, sharing their concerns about the great divide present in our nation. Invariably and with increasing frequency, at some point during these brief encounters my new acquaintance will offer, “And I can’t even speak to my children, husband, high school best friend...fill in the blank here...about the President or politics anymore.”
I hear you and I understand where you are coming from. But if we can’t, as a nation, or even within your own circle and family, speak civilly with our relatives, friends, or our neighbors, about the direction and leadership of our country, what hope can we EVER have that our elected leaders will get it together? In other words, if it’s ‘okay’ to write off a friendship of decades, or to not speak to a sibling or progeny or parent over differences of politics... Then why isn’t it okay for a Supreme Court confirmation hearing to devolve into the spectacle the world recently witnessed?
Hate speech, screaming arguments laced with profanity and insults as the first volley among strangers seemingly have become the conversation style point of today. And yet, there are reams of research to back me up on this, that once one side starts shouting during a dispute, the other side most typically stops listening.
We have real, yet comparatively minor differences of age, race, culture, education, demographics, etc...while we are all humans, comprised primarily of saltwater resembling the cleaner parts of our oceans. We all value freedom, safety, peaceful communities, quality schools and generally speaking, take some pride in being Americans. I am forever dismayed about why we spend so much time focused on our differences, versus our many commonalities. And yet, we can only control our own actions, and potentially influence small circles immediately around us. But don’t forget, our children and others ARE paying attention and watching us. Leadership by example is real, not just some trite cliche. I try to practice this every single day. As this fall election season moves into full swing, divides are getting wider, families and friendships are splitting. But seriously, those relationships should matter much more to you than how that person you care about votes.
IF/when the discourse becomes heated...take a step back...and consider offering something like this.
“I’m sorry, I know in recent years I’ve let my strong beliefs or opinions be shared too loudly. I have often tried to drown out or simply not listen to other points of view. That is wrong. I apologize. I don’t want to ruin our limited time together with talk of politics, but when these do come up again, I promise I will do everything I can to listen, to be respectful, and even when I disagree with you...to remember that our family/friendship is more important...and trumps winning the argument itself every time (pun intended).”
Try it. What have you got to lose? And once we can all get enough of our own houses back in order, then it might be time to ask the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and on Capitol Hill to get back with the program as well. Civility begins at home. This pandemic and related semi-quarantine are giving us all more time to practice. Let’s put all this unplanned ‘togetherness’ to some additional good use.