This past week, our country witnessed several tragedies: a man in Kentucky shot and killed two African Americans at a Kroger grocery store, a Florida man sent a dozen bombs in the mail to Democratic politicians and supporters, and a man killed eleven worshippers and wounded several others at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
We mourn. We comfort. We remember. But what can we do? What can you and I do, right now, to prevent these heinous acts from happening again? This is a question that I have been asking myself for the past week. We can vote, certainly. And we should. We can speak out against racism and anti-Semitism. And we should do this too.
I believe, however, that the problem and the solution are more than just changing politics and eliminating bigotry. I believe that the problem and the solution are intricately related to civility. That the attacks this week were merely symptoms, albeit extreme ones, of a blight of incivility and polarization that has infected our country’s politics. And I believe that we can only start to eradicate this affliction by looking inwards. We must ask what have we done to fan the flames of contempt, no matter how righteous we believe our side to be. We must remember what we learned in Kindergarten—that pointing fingers doesn’t solve problems.
Having had this discussion with many friends, I know that this is not a popular opinion. In my mostly Left-leaning circles, the answer is almost always that the fault lies with Trump and the Republicans. That the only solution is to shout their ideology down, #resist their politics, and vote them out. This response has always troubled me. It ignores the obvious result of such talk and acts, which is that the other side will respond by doing the same. This is where we find ourselves today. Trump has destroyed any notion of civility in politics throughout his first two years in office. Now, countless Trump wannabes have been imitating him on the campaign trail in 2018. The Democrats are not blameless either. They have abandoned “when they go low, we go high” for “when they go low, we kick them” in the words of Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder. Hillary Clinton, who cannot seem to go away, says that civility can only begin again when the Democrats are in power.
I believe, however, that civility–including and especially civility towards incivility–is the only path towards reconciliation. I believe this because it has worked in the past. In what is regarded as one of the best speeches in American history, Bobby Kennedy spoke to a crowd in Indianapolis the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Kennedy said the following: “In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are and what direction we want to move in… You can be filled with bitterness and with hatred and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country. Toward greater polarization… Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that is spread across our land… We have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand. To go beyond these rather difficult times… What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.” On a night when riots broke out across the country, Indianapolis remained quiet.
I believe that we, too, must now ask ourselves what direction we wish to move in as a country. Kennedy shows us the way.
We can try to understand. That means recognizing the basic humanity of those with whom we disagree. That they have life experiences that we will probably never know that have led them to different conclusions than us. But who, in all likelihood, want some combination of liberty, security, prosperity, and equality as we do, too. It means assuming the best of our opponents and answering contempt, perceived or real, with warm-heartedness. It means making a point without making an enemy, as Isaac Newton said.
And we can try to go beyond. Go beyond the political food fight of the day. Focus on policy over politics. Take the high road, however unfashionable that might be at the moment. Remember that tactics matter, as Martin Luther King Jr. recognized when he said, “constructive ends can never give absolute moral justification to destructive means because in the final analysis the end is preexistent in the means.” And going beyond means embracing civility. King warned us that “violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
This is what I say to this tragedy. That civility matters, now more than ever. What do you say?
If you enjoyed this article, you can read more Divided We Fall op-eds here.