"It's so great, Mom," I said. "I don't want them to miss a minute of it. They even seem to get that it's a historical moment!"
"Because he's our first Arab-American president?" she said.
Oh, yes she did. Of course, being me, I took the bait.
Yes, he has Arabic family connections, I said--but so what? Why is that the important thing to emphasize? Because it's the TRUTH, she said. I care about the TRUTH. Don't YOU?
But why is that important? I asked her. Because no one ever mentions it, and it's the TRUTH, she said. I pointed out that Obama has written two memoirs, in which he has very openly and clearly talked about his family heritage, and in fact, one is called Dreams From my Father--but apparently she still thinks he's trying to hide something.
It just sounds like you're being disrespectful of him, and not really appreciating what an enormously important thing this is for our country. What, she said, that we now have an ARAB-American president? He's not black, why do they always say he's black? Arabs are not black!
He has dark skin, mom, I said. It's got to be so encouraging and hopeful for people who have darker skin to actually see someone become president who looks a little more like them--maybe it makes them feel a little more included, or a little more optimistic. He's not black, she repeated. Arabs are not black. He's not African-American; he's Arab-American. Why are they trying to hide the TRUTH?
Mom, I said. Seriously? He's very clearly not an old white guy, and that's one thing that's different. Of course my mother found that remark to be disrespectful, and I apologized.
"I'm not trying to be disrespectful," I said. "I'm pointing out the obvious--that he LOOKS different, and his background is different, and to me and many other people, he also SOUNDS different." Either way, it's historic and important--why would she want to be hostile and angry about it?
And she's not the only one. Another family member sent me an email the other day saying this:
Now that your man is in, I have to rib you a bit. An AP wire reported that US military planes attacked a group of Afghans and killed 15-16. The president of Afghanistan says they were all civilians. If the republicans were as vicious, stupid and arrogant as their democrat rivals they would be printing bumper stickers reading, "Obama Lied, People Died".I don't get it. I understand that he didn't vote for Obama, and that he would probably never vote for a Democrat. That's fine. But to smear all democrats as "vicious, stupid and arrogant" is so over-the-top that it's not even possible to return to a civil disagreement. Or am I wrong? But I cannot not take the bait--even though I did not ask for this fight, and never initiate political conversations with my family because I always end up feeling beat up.
I suggested that if the 15-16 who died were civilians, then it is not a time for ribbing, but for mourning. And I also submitted that it's ridiculous to suggest that Democrats are more vicious, stupid and arrogant than Republicans, just because of their party affiliation. Both groups are comprised of sinners, and neither side can claim moral superiority.
I'd like him to be more supportive of our new president and not, like the mascot of the Right, Rush Limbaugh, hope that he fails. But barring that, couldn't we just agree to disagree, with civility, and not make everything a black and white moral issue? Apparently not. He firmly stands by his assertion that the Dems are hateful and vicious, and he said, "You'd really have to reach to find anything close" on the Republican side. How can you even have a civil, constructive conversation with someone who makes party affiliation a moral issue?
Don't get me wrong. I do believe in black and white moral issues. I do believe there are absolutes. But even in absolutes, there can be civility and courtesy. There can be benefit of the doubt, and peacemaking. Maybe we all need a primer on what civility looks like in operational terms:
- avoid broad-brush, inflammatory statements
- use clear, specific and representative examples
- don't assume that you know what your opponent believes or agrees with. Instead, ask, and listen.
- be aware of how you are coming across. If you become aware that you have offended, take responsibility, and rephrase. Why? Because the relationship, or the person, is more valuable than the point you are making.
- Show restraint, respect, and consideration in your words and actions.
Now I gotta go scream at my kids because they're making too much noise and tearing through the house.