Northam, Flake and distracting ourselves with civility

A few weeks ago former Senator Jeff Flake, NPR producer/reporter Zoe Chase, and historian Jon Meacham spoke at Vanderbilt University. It was a packed house, and the conversation was well informed, if stilted at times. Flake, now known for his call to elevate our discourse in political arenas, has consistently lamented the lack of civility in the public sphere. He is seen by some as a brave maverick who stood up to forces in his party accustomed to demonizing voices of dissent, and he had to leave politics as a result.

For the past month I have explored the divide between who we hope to be and who we sometimes become. It has often been uncomfortable, as it’s hard to see our hypocrisies, to notice our lies and to trace the impact of our delusions on our selves and others. Such periods of reflection are necessary for people who believe everything matters, and yet, I am reminded of the words my mother often sends me when she reads my work: “Remember to notice the good! Don’t just highlight the bad, but celebrate the good.”

We have never more passionately celebrated calls for respectful disagreement and civil discussion. Hooray! Senator Flake issued such rhetorical admonitions, chastising those who demonized others. In teaching a course on composition and rhetoric this semester I have been delighted to remember that rhetoric is the study of how new information interacts with old information. How do we allow new ideas to impact the perspectives we already hold on an issue? A look at various media, the Senate floor, or a church hallway might reveal we are quite bad at reaching across lines of difference, at receiving the experience of another that seems to threaten the stability of an idea we espouse.

A scholar named Jim Corder argues that we are generally terrible at having our ideas challenged because we haven’t been honest about how we developed them in the first place. In other words, the narratives we tell ourselves about how the world works are deeply entwined in our own sense of self, and our positions are therefore not mere intellectual thought experiments, but rather reflections of us. We argue fiercely, easily feeling defensive or attacked, because we embody—we have become—what we believe. When a person undermines that belief or tries to toss it aside we feel as though they are tossing our very selves aside.

Can we find ways to evaluate how our core life experiences shape the ideas we esteem and the positions we hold? If we want to converse civilly, we must also examine ideas or positions that result from equally genuine and valuable life experiences, even if they are not our own. Seen in this light, Flake’s call is surely necessary, if not noble. I’m thankful he used his platform to name incivility when he saw it, but I am afraid our conversation on civility is a distraction from the policy issues that undergird it. Many of us, like a starving person offered a piece of bread, seize these critiques of how we speak to one another, consuming them with gratitude. Something in us resonates as we cry, “Finally! We’re better than this! We value character and good ideas, we don’t bully and rely on stereotypes!”

 The truth, of course, is that biases often impact our speech, assumptions and thinking without our recognizing them; however, I’m afraid that when we focus on speech, we miss the more important point. The biases that ooze out in our discourse, shocking us, heavily influence our ideas about fairness and justice. They impact the policies we support, and allow us to vote into law ideas that codify our incivility. Our discourse is surely problematic, but if we think our words are unkind, think about the policies those words produce. Our speech can be civil while our policies do violence to those with little power. I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse, while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.

This week a photo depicting a white man in blackface next to a Klansmen was found on the Medical School yearbook page of Virginia’s Governor. He apologized for his poor taste and begged for the right to earn the trust of Virginians. Bafflingly, a day later he claimed he couldn’t recall if he was actually in the picture, so it should not reflect poorly on him, although he did recall using a bit of shoe polish to darken his skin on another occasion. As the mounting calls for his resignation clash with his refusal to do so, many people are consumed with labeling him racist or with arguing it was a long time ago and we all make mistakes.

Our past choices—the things we thought funny or appropriate—certainly reveal much about what we valued and to whom we listened. When they surface, it is customary to argue indefinitely about what those choices reveal about us then and now. However, such discussions distract us from a better question: Has he governed in a way that rejects stereotypes, racial hierarchies, and a preference for the powerful at the expense of the poor, or has he not? Who are his friends and advisors today? Rather than arguing about whether a picture makes one racist, what if we expanded our conversation so that we examine how the actions of a person demonstrate their values?

Let’s ask more of ourselves than Senator Flake or Governor Northam do, so that we don’t lose sight of the physical impact of our uncivil speech or past jokes. Yes, we need to clean up our rhetoric, and engage others with respect. How much more important is it for us to see the devastating impact of our choice to overlook the lives of others?

I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse,

while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.

 My hopeful conclusion is simply this: civil discourse and civil governance are not mutually exclusive. Let’s be people of word and deed. Let’s be people who don’t just point fingers at others, but who ask ourselves how we came to believe the things we believe. Whose experience did we value when we decided how the world worked and what solutions are needed? Please do call out incivility, or past racist acts, but it is foolish to then call it a day, stopping with our speech or personal behavior alone. We must take the next step and appeal to one another for ongoing civil governance. Let’s ask our leaders to behave and speak respectfully, but let’s demand that they support policies that treat all people civilly.

I want that! (No, I don't...)

Sunday mornings, for parents who also go to church, can be the worst. These mornings often involve grumpy children, yelling parents, and breaking speed limits. Exacerbating the delays, the tension, the meanness, is often a subtle despair that Sunday mornings should not be like this!! On the way to church, for goodness’ sakes!

And yet, things are often not like they ought to be. My family’s Sunday tradition involves getting donuts on the way to church. Yes, it unfortunately means having to leave earlier, but yes, it also means no breakfast making is required, so it’s a win overall. A few years ago my kids were on the trampoline, in pjs, wrestling, on Sunday morning. I, using my I’m-an-amazing-mom-gently-reminding-you-that-we-need-to-leave-soon voice, calmly yelled out the back door that if they wanted donuts we had to leave in ten. 

“We do! We do want donuts!”  Wrestle-mania continued.

Three minutes went by. Still wrestling.

“Hey savage ones! If you want donuts get in here and get dressed!”

“We do! We do want donuts!” More Bouncing. More wrestling.

Three more minutes went by.

“You have lost your everloving minds if you think I’m getting you donuts if we are not pulling out of this driveway in 3 minutes. “  Less gentle. Less amazing.

“We do! We do want donuts!”

“Really? Cause I can’t tell AT ALL. You say you want donuts but you are doing NONE OF THE THINGS REQUIRED to get donuts. At some point you have to move your bodies toward your closets if you actually, in fact, want donuts. You can’t just keep saying it while performing pile drivers on each other.”

And just like that, 4 little bodies tumbled out of the netting, onto the grass, up to their closets, and into the car. Donuts received, along with tardy slips from Jesus.

As we slide into 2019, there are lessons here for us. Like children—especially when it’s resolution time—we wholeheartedly claim to want things we have no intention of pursuing. The kids adamantly asserted their desire for pastries, but really they just wanted to play. Last week I suggested we do the self-reflection required to tell the truth in the new year. If we want to share meaningfully engaged lives with others, we must work to stop our subtle practice of defending ourselves, seeing only our best intentions, and revising history to make ourselves seem noble in every encounter.

Extending that thought, it is helpful to recognize that we often say we want certain realities in our lives without taking steps to realize them. Some examples are easy:

We say we want to be healthy, but we like Doritos more than running.

We say we want a good night’s sleep, but we drink too much or watch TV late into the night.

We say we want to be less busy, or to have less distracted kids, but we overcommit everyone we care for without blinking an eye.

We want to be people who read, but we pick up a book and then pick up an iphone…and then an hour disappears.

For the next few weeks I’d like to slow the tape for us, offering time to think about how we talk about the things we hope for.  Approaching middle age, it is easy to imagine one day looking back on a few decades of failed attainment. I never got the rhythm of rest and work down. I never got my kids to put their phones down. I never got the whole family dinner made at home thing to work. I never had the relationships I wanted with my neighbors.

My fear is that this narrative of failure is coming for all of us, and rather than understanding how we got here, we will revise history to make ourselves seem disciplined and intentional, while painting our dreams as idealistic or impossible. In other words, we will easily assume we all live in a circle of failure because it is too hard to be the people we hope to be. We tried, and repeated for years that we hoped for X. Since X never happened, it must be that X is impossible.

Our tendency to assume our unrealized hopes are impossible is another way we lie to ourselves. For instance, I talk and teach a LOT about neighboring. This is a clunky word, but it conveys the idea that we want to care well for the people we know. We literally want to be good neighbors to our neighbors. We want to be people and have people to call in a pinch. We want to share meals and watch babies and walk dogs. Nevertheless, for many of us, we say we want this while we actively chose our own agendas at the expense of those very relationships.

 For years, I said I wanted to be a good neighbor. However. When a knock came at an inopportune time, or when a never-ending chat in the yard made dinner late, or when being outside somehow beckoned a visit, or when a big party landed cars in my space or noise in my ears, I got annoyed. Without realizing it, I longed for friends-like-family neighbors while actively avoiding such relationships. The truth is that I only wanted amazing neighbors when I needed a favor, or on the one night a year when communal grilling and cocktailing seemed like all I ever wanted in life. I said I wanted to be a good neighbor while sort of hating all the things neighboring requires.

Alas, our capacity for hypocrisy is enormous. We will spend a few weeks here examining the dreams to which we aspire. For now, pay attention to the oft-repeated hopes of your frustrated soul and then examine the ways you approach or fail to approach those hopes. I suspect our problem is not that our dreams are out of reach, but that we fail to understand all that they require. Do not abuse the dream because you lack the stamina to realize it.

This is not who we are!! Right?!

This week US Border Agents sprayed tear gas on men, women, children and babies trying to illegally and legally enter our country as immigrants or asylum seekers at our Southern border. In Alabama, at a mall crowded with holiday shoppers, police shot and then refused medical intervention to a black man—a veteran—who was there. They mistakenly assumed he was killing people, while the real shooter escaped unharmed. In elections earlier this month, we elected leaders who openly use dehumanizing language to describe non-white people or who were credibly accused of sexual assault or fraud.

As we view this recent history, our responses vary. Outraged, some protest, screaming, “This has got to stop!” Others grieve, sobbing, “Lord, have mercy.” Many refuse to look, calling it “fake news.” Overwhelmed, some shrug their shoulders, choosing apathy instead of compassion. Still others, bewildered, utter a desperate plea: “This is not who we are! Right?!”

This is exactly who we are, though. An examination of our history (importantly, not the history reflected by most secondary school standards) reveals that our country, our wealth and our cultural norms are built at the expense of people who are neither white nor Christian. I don’t say this as political accusation or hyperbole, but as a person who has studied a country and a church that I love. We are faithful and brave and willing to sacrifice for others. We also have a history of choosing ourselves first, of excusing unspeakable horrors in the name of God’s blessing to us. The protestant underpinnings of our founding affirm racial hierarchy as part of God’s good design. This led us (and leads us) to justify mission work toward and violence against people of color who were not aligned with the faith. These beginnings are rarely acknowledged, and despite the fact that we continue to take steps toward equality and universal human rights, our majority is suspicious of non-white people, and our cultural norms protect this perspective.

Interested in our national cognitive dissonance—we support a status quo of racialized injustice, while also insisting we do not have a race problem—I think a lot about how we got here, and believe we privilege greedy theologies and nationalistic governance. The great news is that we don’t have to stay here. You can decide to be different today, and you can start by examining our collective history, your individual bias and instinctive beliefs about others, about normal, about right. If we do not engage in these ways, we’ll stay here, and the news of this week will continue, indefinitely.

We have to learn to speak up, not just for the bad, but for the good. As my mom often reminds me, speak up for the good you see, for the choices that value life and honor dignity! Celebrate courage and quiet generosity. Do justice and love mercy. We the people are forming the America we live in. If you think we are better than our most selfish, grasping instincts, then you must develop a capacity to acknowledge and confront those instincts in yourself. We are the people we complain about and those we believe in, and we need to examine how we got here in order to agree with the direction we are heading. If we understand American culture and wealth is built on hierarchies, we can begin to engage in rejecting the fruit that grows out of those systems.

If you find the courage to name and challenge the poison of assumed superiority, though, you might lose your own capital in the process. We tend to demonize folks who challenge the status quo because it can lead to changing the status quo, removing any comfort found there. It is worth noting that cultural norms typically do not support points of view that challenge unacknowledged bias. Consider with me a group of wealthy men gathering for poker or to fish or for drinks, who feel they don’t have to be “careful” in their environment. Imagine one of them referring to women in less-than-honoring ways, and uttering statements about other races or ethnicities based on uninformed stereotypes. His derogatory speech offends those around him. He dehumanizes fellow humans, adhering to notions of gendered and racial hierarchies that are outrageous and inappropriate. It is not okay, ever, under any circumstances to speak of another human the way that he does. The men hanging out with him KNOW THIS to be true, but they freeze, caught between what they know to be wrong and what cultural norms approve. If a man finds the courage to speak up, to confront him or even engage him in conversation, quietly confessing he is bothered by this language, that brave man would ruin the moment. Cultural norms are so powerful that they absolve the racist, sexist man and indict the man who dares to say, “I’m bothered by the way you speak about the women and people of color with whom we all work and worship and live.” The man who speaks up becomes the man who steps out of line, not the man who uttered hate speech. This is the power of cultural norms to destroy us all.

In order for equality and universal value to become normal, we have to challenge every norm that asserts the opposite. It is tempting for some to choose apathy, to stand aloof, to shrug our shoulders when we see evidence that we are erasing our history or assuming value based on race or gender; nevertheless, choosing apathy props up the America we all claim does not exist. Others are tempted to protest, to launch a non profit, to wage war on Twitter or reddit, even while they remain silent when a colleague, churchgoer or family member speaks with bias against another group. We must learn to speak up in every arena we enter.

 We are actively creating the America we inhabit, and as long as we give biased norms the most power, they will control and divide us. We will stay exactly as we are, in hierarchies of race, gender and wealth that refuse to acknowledge themselves, unless we take the brave steps required to change our norms. For the past few weeks, these essays have discussed the courage and independence required to challenge the status quo. I’ll end this series with this final thought: If we want to be a country where everyone is treated as a valuable human, then we must take responsibility for, and speak up against, messages we hear that conflict with this idea.