During the 2016 Democratic national convention Michelle Obama said, “When they go low we go high.” I’m pretty sure she meant it. President Obama was subjected to all manner of incivility. The apoplectic response to his presidency was unfounded, irrational and definitely unkind. Yet his response was always diplomatic, patient and civil. Michelle knew that when she made the convention statement. The Obamas have lived their lives as great examples of how to treat incivility. They did not react in kind. They, without exception, took the higher ground. Whether or not you agreed with their politics, to call them unkind or uncivil would be an indictment of your tribalism, not their behavior.
No doubt Mr. Trump is a polar opposite of the behavior exemplified by the Obamas. He’s petulant, unprofessional, rude, crass, unkind and a bully to say the least. His personal behavior is not only embarrassing, it’s abusive. Many have felt not only the justification but the need to react to his behavior in kind. The uptick in incivility is alarming. Celebrity rants, publicly yelling at Cabinet members, White House officials and Republican law makers. The infamous refusing to serve the White House Press Secretary at the Red Hen. All of these actions are understandable but none of them are acceptable.
I understand and am sympathetic to the natural desire to retaliate. However, the often-quoted quip “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” rings true (interestingly as I researched for this post that quote cannot be definitively attributed to anyone.) If those who oppose Mr. Trump’s repugnant behavior repeat it, how is that any better? Now before you lay into me about how dangerous his policies are and how disastrous his administration is let me say this: Do the means justify the ends? Is there no better way to fight dishonesty, racism and bullying then to react in kind?
Let me lay out some of the consequences of retaliation:
First, it entrenches those who disagree with you. Supporters of Mr. Trump often state how they like his direction but not his tactics when those who disagree with him resort to his tactics his supporters are more likely to double down than they are to listen to alternative perspectives. It further emboldens the disastrous tribalism we currently live in. It does not become about ideas but about “us versus them.” Nobody wins in an incivility arms race.
Second, the bystanders, those who are not persuaded by Mr. Trump or may not like his tactics, are left with frustration and apathy for the process. They see “both sides as part of the problem.” When you resort to name calling, yelling, bullying and incivility you lose the ability to articulate a better policy approach. People tune out you and your ideas. I’ve had lots of conversations with people who say, “I don’t like Mr. Trump but the left is no better.” We create an environment that seems to say civic engagement means incivility. It’s not only counterproductive, it’s antithetical to your goals. People aren’t dumb. They see the mass hypocrisy and faux outrage from both sides and say in essence, “A pox on both your houses.”
I believe both Mr. Trump’s tactics and policies should be resisted, challenged and confronted. I also think we can and should do it from a place of civility and reasoned discourse. I don’t think those who disagree with him should back down. I do think they should be wise in their tactics and take the higher ground. So instead of posting that snarky meme or yelling at your Trump supporting brother-in-law, donate, volunteer, challenge your own assumptions, better inform your own opinions and above all, take the higher ground.