In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas…Unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things."
-- Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominis, 1617
Before you ask me, the answer is “no”. I won’t watch any of the Presidential debates this year. Unlike the 100 million or more of my fellow Americans who are estimated to have viewed the first of these partisan slugfests, I stuck with “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, one of my all time favorite TV shows. For one night Captain Picard was my candidate of choice.
It’s not for lack of interest. I’m not civically disengaging. I’ve probably read more and talked with others more and thought more and written more about this election, than any other Presidential competition in my lifetime. I’m a news junkie. Normally I’d eat this stuff up and yet, I pass for one simple reason.
Civility, and the lack thereof in our 2016 election cycle. Civility: the virtue of being able to respect and be in community with your opponent, while still disagreeing. Civility: basic politeness, manners, the kind of stuff we were taught as kids: by our parents, our teachers, our elders. Wait your turn to speak. Watch your language. When you win, don’t gloat. When you lose, show grace and accept the results. Civility: the social glue that binds us together in community, especially when we live and work side by side with folks who do not share our beliefs.
But this hope for civility: basic human decency in how we treat one another across the political and social divide? I don’t think I’ve ever seen it more absent than right now in our country and this conflict is embodied in the debates. Debates: politics as blood sport. Politics as Wrestlemania.
Candidates wait to pounce. The audience gleefully hopes “the enemy” will make a gaffe or a goof or a mistake. The media, play by play announcers, analyzing not the weight of substantive policy, but the fluff of appearance, as if they are calling a beauty pageant. Did he roll his eyes again? Did she have that fake smile again? Who “won”? Who “lost”?
Because here’s a basic truth about November 9th, the day after the election. That morning 45 percent or so of American voters (if current polls hold true) will be very disappointed because their candidate, cause, ideology, lost. Yet still we’ll all have to live together, going ahead. Figure out how to be America and Americans in community. Still we’ll have to face our mutual problems, regardless of ideology. Neighborhood crime and violence and poverty. A national opioid crisis. An economy leaving behind millions of our neighbors. Terrorism at home and abroad. A changing national demographic: some groups grow, some groups shrink.
We can debate all we want, yell all we want, post our opinions on Facebook all we want about the rightness of our beliefs. Go for it. But then remember: we share a common home, all 319 million of us. A debate, a vote, does not change that reality.
That’s why we need civility. As a person of faith I learned the central rule of civility from Jesus. Once when asked what the most important law was in his tradition, he simply answered, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Pretty basic stuff. It appears in almost all faiths and philosophies. Treat “the other” as you wish to be treated. You don’t have to agree with them on everything. Your beliefs are not diminished when you honor the humanity of your opponent.
There was a great photo that went viral on social media last week, a snapshot taken in Washington, D.C. at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Pictured are two Presidential couples, the Bushes and the Obamas, natural enemies, right? Separated by race, politics, geography, life experience. Yet there they are, standing together, smiling. In the center is President Bush, a relaxed grin on his face, leaning back into Michelle Obama’s embrace. They looks like four old friends, sharing an inside joke. Will such rapprochement save the republic? No. But it teaches us that civility can work, if we choose to work it. One relationship at a time.
To be civil: in all our interactions, political and personal. It pays off. On this I pray that there is no debate. Now back to “Star Trek”.