It frequently strikes me how little power I have in the world beyond the interior of my brain. While others have found solace in their powerlessness by fawning over those with power, adopting their language, swearing their fealty, and deluding themselves into thinking that it will somehow rub off on them, I find solace in the fact that I do not matter. That nothing I do has much consequence or meaning in the bigger scheme. I own no banks or armies. I cannot seduce or overpower. I’m marginally intelligent, but have thus far found little advantage in a world that dances with stars and phones in an idol.
After the corrosive Supreme Court process, some people are crowing and bragging. Others are blaming and giving out unsolicited advice. Mostly, it’s just more noise. A good portion of it is online, but to paraphrase Soylent Green, it’s people. Trolls are people. Politicians are people. Republicans and Democrats, racists and snowflakes are people. They all were born and they will all die and they each get to decide what kind of person they want to be in between those milestones.
The point is that individuals don’t get to take cover in ideology to justify behaving badly. How they conduct themselves is entirely their responsibility. They don’t get to point at someone or something else and bleat they started it. They don’t get to shroud themselves in the flag or the Bible or self-righteousness, while being cruel and vicious to other humans. They cannot do this without damaging their character in the process.
I used to give politicians some leeway because it seemed like no matter how decent they were prior to going into politics, they seemed to morph into snake oil salespeople the longer they served. Would you believe that Senator Grassley didn’t always seem like a sack of donut holes and denture cream? My family used to vote for him. I once shook his hand as a Girl Scout growing up in Iowa.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964
But the day has come and gone for excusing ratty behavior in the pursuit of a win and encouraging that behavior to gain power. I’ve never had much power, except over who I decide to be. It’s a battle I have to fight everyday. I wake up, read the news, and I have to decide if I’m going to spend the day simmering with anger, or if I’m going to get on with the business of being human and using the very small, very localized power that I have to ensure that my own house is in order before I venture out to tell someone else how to take care of theirs.
Last night, I vetted audience questions for a school board candidate debate. It meant screening out snark and partisan comments, rewriting questions to have broader application, etc. It was a polite process, even when there were tough questions on the table about an upcoming levy referendum, the achievement gap, and other education-related questions. No one shouted. People didn’t storm out.
Candidates considered each question and gave their perspectives. People applauded to thank them at the end. Would it have been more useful with people hurling invectives, the moderator acting more as investigative journalist? I think less information would have been shared, fewer audience questions addressed, and anxiety levels would have been high. No doubt there were disgruntled people, but not inflamed. The whole evening was a lesson in political civility.
“Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation.”
There is an argument that to wield power you have to win that power and to win that power, you have to put aside your moral compass. So from the get-go, that power is tainted. While people talk about resistance, I go a step further and define it for myself. Amoral people don’t get to turn me into them. They don’t get to take my humanity and twist it into an unrecognizable heap of venom and spitefulness. If that happens, then there is no point in “winning”.
Despite what seems to be delusions en masse, I don’t confuse civility with weakness or cruelty for strength. I don’t confuse “telling it like it is” with truth or decency. I am not led astray by those who would condemn entire swathes of people to being evil, especially by those who say they are Christians or patriots or freedom-lovers. Liars. Your behavior betrays you. Your self-identification is an empty vessel. Your representation is false.
When I listen to the president of this country tell people that they have no right to representation and governance, that they are weak, that they are paid to represent the other side, that the media is the enemy of the people, I do not need to ask that McCarthy-era question. I know that he has no decency, no moral compass, no sense of honor. But that does not mean that he gets to take the rest of us with him.
The whole country wants civility. Why don’t we have it? It doesn’t cost anything. No federal funding, no legislation is involved. One answer is the unwillingness to restrain oneself. Everybody wants other people to be polite to them, but they want the freedom of not having to be polite to others.
So I hold fast to civility. I look to leaders in the past who led through non-violence and radical compassion and iron kindness. People in power don’t get to make the rules for what kind of person I will be. In the current environment, I’m really going to have to work for it. It’s not easy and I have, at times, failed.
Fierce civility. It’s not acquiescence. It’s not complicity. It’s not silence. It’s the ability to understand that violence and unethical behavior has a temporary quality, but a permanent stain. It’s courage to be decent humans in the face of blatant rage and fear. It is our character under fire that defines us. Those fires are going to get hotter. Practice civility and courage now and often. We will be tested as individuals and a nation. It’s a test I want to pass.