By Matt Gordon
The first Presidential Debate is in the books. But these likely aren’t books that will be reopened any time soon. No, this discourse will be filed away, like one hides his Junior High yearbook and hopes no one ever opens it to see his chubby phase or bad hair. In a handful of years, of decades, this one will have happened, but we’ll probably sort of try to dupe ourselves that it was all a bad dream or simpler time or not reflective of who we are.
But that last is the lie, I think. It is reflective of who we are.
My wife and I watched two aged men belittle themselves before us with wry smiles. We laughed in places, even hit rewind on a particularly wayward quip or baffling non-sequitur or incoherent rant. We’d giggle, shake our heads, and then be sobered by the reality that this is reality. This is the world we live in and will live in for some time—the very one we will raise our sons in. (Will they become aged men belittling themselves in public?) Again, our heads would wag and we’d think, how did we get here? How could this happen to us? How is everyone else so messed up? It has nothing to do with us, after all.
But then I watched post-debate chatter—on network TV, on social media. I read articles and opinions, tweets and posts. I had some in-person conversations and emails. The themes were the same: the lack of decorum, the incivility, the failure to listen. This was all well and good. Accurate. But there was a problem. Most places where I watched or read or conversed, I noticed a lack of decorum, incivility, and a failure to listen. I felt the same things roiling around in my own heart too.
We want candidates that reflect who we the people are and political parties that do the same.
The trouble is, I think we got them.
There is an old saying that “Art imitates life.” But then an odd reversal began to happen with the rise of the entertainment industry where life began to imitate art. We stopped trying to spotlight truth from experience and began a vainglorious attempt to manufacture truth and then try to live out from that, whether it was true or not. And now I find us doing the same thing. We hate all this incivility we see on the screen in front of us, but then we become puppets of incivility. I read no shortage of posts calling one candidate every degradation possible. In the name of fighting for dignity for all humans, we take one human and strip him of his dignity. “Well, he doesn’t deserve it,” comes the refrain. But that is the thing about dignity—it is not an earned principle. All deserve a basic level of dignity. Respect? Yeah, perhaps it can be earned and unearned. But I do not want to curse my fellow man—even the ones I don’t vote for. Rigorously go after policy? Yes. Convince others of the unsuitability for high office? Sure. Campaign against a candidate? That’s democracy. But to call another human a piece of —- or complete trash or much, much worse? Not sure if I can do that and then give my reason as incivility or disunity or decorum. I’ve forfeited such lofty positions, just as I’ve forfeited some of the beauty of being a human who can choose them, even toward my enemy.
On the other side, we had a candidate who totally lacked respect for the presidential office and said a bunch of nasty things and was completely ill-mannered. He is old and doddering too. Probably senile. That mother-bleeper. The crook. That this and that that. Totally uncivil. It is the same film over again. Here is a man who has been in public service for decades. A father, a husband, a former holder of, yes, esteemed office—the second highest in all the land. Again, can we disagree with him? Yep. Can we question his fitness for such a taxing job? Sure. Can we disparage him and his family and wish malady and worse upon him and his supporters? Well, it is the land of the free after all. But it also used to be the land of the brave.
And I guess I miss those days too. When bravery was not lambasting your enemies, but asking them to join their thinking to yours for the sake of a better union. “That is pie-in-the-sky thinking,” some would say. It wasn’t for Lincoln. It is what he did. Bravery is marching into cities that spit on you and, still wounded by taunts and insults, standing before a nation and upholding character and dignity and having a dream for something better. Martin did that.
And both men were shot.
We cry out for civil discourse, and then dog-cuss all those who don’t practice it. We are tired of a divided system, yet we can’t even approach an aisle for a conversation, (dis)content to go on yelling across the ever-expanding chasm. We want dignity to be lived out and bestowed on others by our leaders, but we daily mock and curse one another.
The president—all of government really—is supposed to be representative of its people. In that way the system is working; one need look no further than the debate. We all want a better reality foisted upon us by better leaders. But we need “art” to imitate life. When we repeatedly choose dignity, dignified leaders will follow. When we repeatedly choose unity, unity will follow. When we uphold freedom of speech as a right to choose better words rather than a justification of worse ones, we’ll have conversations rather than speeches, learning rather than squabbling, and debates that truly represent and strive for something better. We must become the better candidates we desire.