It’s Hard(er) to Be a Jerk When You’re Across the Table From Your Enemy
It was fascinating to watch the three-minute video clip where Barack Obama and Donald Trump met the media after spending an hour together at the White House today. It wasn’t interesting because of anything either of them said. For the most part, the media briefing was the usual vacuous political-speak that we expect when the cameras are clicking at break-neck speed and the reporters are scrambling to gobble up every word. We need to come together… I hope he’s successful… I have respect for him… We discussed challenges and logistics… We had a wide-ranging conversation…. It was, in many ways, a study in how to say things that seem meaningful while saying not much of anything at all.
What struck me was the tone of the conversation. It was so civil, so nice, so respectful. The men were deferential to each other. They shook hands warmly and said they looked forward to further conversation. It wasn’t over-the-top friendly, but all in all it seemed so radically incongruous with the crude and insulting and often incredibly personal rhetoric that has been flying through the air for the last year or so. The same thing was evident in Trump and Clinton’s speeches after Tuesday’s election. Gone was the nastiness and vitriol. In its place were the usual congratulations for well-run campaigns, hard fights, etc. One could be forgiven for wondering how, exactly, one moves from inciting stadiums of people to chant “Lock Her Up!” to warm congratulations in a matter of days. It’s enough to make the head spin.
But back to the conversation at the White House. It could, I suppose, be explained in a number of ways. This is just the way things work in politics. You tear into your opponents for months on end and then smile and shake hands when the game election is over and move on. Or, this was nothing more than a bit of political theatre that needed to proceed according to the script for the sake of peace and order. No matter what each of these men was thinking inside, they had to keep up the charade out of respect for the institution. Or, it was pure pragmatism. Trump knows (or has been told) that he somehow has to reach out to those who didn’t vote for him. Obama knows that his nation is in a bit of a precarious position right now and that those in leadership need to put on a brave face and do what they can to avert social unrest. Maybe someone told them to play nice or they wouldn’t get any lunch. Who knows?
But I wonder if it also might be at least in part for the very simple reason that it’s a lot harder to be a jerk to someone when they’re sitting across the table from you. Not impossible, of course (if only!). But harder. You can scream and yell and degrade and insult people all you want from behind a microphone when your own tribe is cheering on your every word. You can tweet out awful stuff when the echo chamber is dutifully liking and retweeting. You can accuse and belittle and degrade. You can play fast and loose with (or ignore) the truth. You can incite the cheering mob to a hatred for your enemies that perhaps exceeds even your own. But when you’re in a room with another human being discussing real-life stuff, when you see a face and hear a voice, when you maybe see someone’s kids or what kind of lunch they prefer. Well, then you say things like, “He’s a good man” and “I respect him.” Maybe it’s just way harder to be awful to people when we’re actually with people.
I think most of us know this to be true, if in far less exciting and dramatic circumstances than a meeting at the White House. I certainly do. It’s easy to be sarcastic and dismissive when hiding behind a keyboard or when you’re surrounded by those who admire you and mostly think like you do. It’s easy to paint those who disagree with you in the most unflattering of lights, and to use all kinds of nasty epithets when they’re not in the room and you don’t have to look them in the eye. It’s easy to frame the viewpoints of others in ways that are utterly devoid of the nuance and care that you would take in articulating your own. And, of course, it almost goes without saying that it’s really, really easy to act like an idiot on the Internet. Indeed, the Internet rewards this kind of behaviour at virtually every turn.
So, maybe the lesson to be learned from a three minute video clip about a meeting at the White House has far less to do with politics and elections and the future of the free world now that Donald Trump will be president. Maybe it’s just a plea to take the time to be with one another in physical spaces and non-virtual encounters. Maybe it’s an invitation to actually go out and meet someone whose views you’re pretty sure you don’t share. Have lunch with a gay co-worker. Invite a Muslim to dinner. Play squash with an atheist. Go to a movie with a fundamentalist (conservative or liberal). If you’re a Christian, worship with those on the other end of whichever spectrum you happen to inhabit (and be reminded that your shared allegiance to Jesus transcends your differences, that you are, in fact, brothers and sisters). If you’re a political warrior dutifully hammering away at the opposition in every online forum you can find, turn off your computer, call up someone more conservative or liberal than you, and have a beer. Who knows, you might actually learn something about how your neighbour thinks (and why) and what the world looks like from their perspective.
I’ve tried to do some of these kinds of things. Not as often as I ought to, no doubt, but enough to notice some trends. Without exception I have found that when I’m eye to eye with another human being, there is shared ground, there is common humanity, and there similar hopes and fears. I have found that the categories I often employ to describe those whose views I don’t share are rarely, if ever up to the task of capturing the complexity and beauty and dignity of the living, breathing miracle that’s sitting across the table from me.
I’m not naive. I know that we won’t magically solve every problem or seamlessly transition to tranquil unanimity on all the things that divide us if we take some of these steps. But we will, I suspect, find it considerably more difficult to be jerks to one another. And this is, if nothing else, a decent start. If Obama and Trump can do it, so can we. Right?